Friday, July 13, 2018

Deeply Rooted Alumni: Where Are They Now? Ray Mercer

Ray Mercer

Ray Mercer, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, is in his 16th year as a member of the Tony Award-winning cast of Disney’s The Lion King. He has simultaneously emerged as one of New York City’s most prolific choreographers. His dynamic, visually striking and thought-provoking choreography has won the Best Onstage Presentation award seven times at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS annual Gypsy of the Year competition, more than any other choreographer. Recipient of The Joffrey Ballet’s Choreographers of Color Award and a Capezio Ace Awards finalist, he has created work on Ailey II, Giordano Dance Chicago, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, New Jersey Ballet, Pensacola Ballet and Philadanco, among others, and for Dancers Responding to AIDS, a program of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He started his dance training at age 17 at the University of New Orleans. He has performed with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, as a guest artist with the Boston Ballet and on the national tour of The Lion King. He has worked with performers Garth Fagan, George Faison, Aretha Franklin, Kevin Iega Jeff, Louis Johnson, Rod Stewart and more. Currently the resident choreographer for the Ailey/Fordham Bachelor of Fine Arts program, he also directed and choreographed for the Smithsonian Oman Project, and his work is archived in the Smithsonian Museum. Last year, he choreographed Deep Love: A Ghostly Rock Opera at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

What first brought you to Deeply Rooted? 
I was first introduced to Jubilation/Deeply Rooted at an International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference. I immediately feel in love with Iega’s choreographic voice. Soon after, I moved to Chicago and danced with Deeply Rooted for two seasons, from 2000 to 2002.
How did learning from and performing with Deeply Rooted affect you as a dancer and choreographer?
I think the biggest impact Deeply Rooted had/has on me as a dancer and choreographer was its humanistic approach to dance. As a choreographer, I have always found it important that my work comes from the spirit. I have always been attracted to experiences that touch the human spirit. I remember Iega said one day in rehearsal, “You dance who you are.” That has always stuck with me, and it is important that my work reflects that.

You’ve worked with a number of important contemporary dance companies. Were there ways your time with Deeply Rooted prepared you for that work? 
I have been very fortunate and blessed to work with so many amazing dance companies around the world. I think Deeply Rooted has helped me with my choreographic voice. I learned during my time with Deeply Rooted that it is important as an artist to be authentic. This has helped with my approach to my choreographic work. I strived to approach my work from a genuine place. I think it makes me more tangible as an artist/choreographer. I have always felt that Deeply Rooted’s mission has been about authenticity and character and that it is spirit driven, and I think this is what makes the company as a whole accessible and beautiful to experience.
What has it been like to be part of The Lion King for such a long time? How has the production or your experience working on it evolved over that time?
The Lion King has truly been a huge blessing. To be part of one of the largest Broadway shows in history, and to work with people of color for 16 years and counting, has been beyond what I could ever imagine. It has taught me the value of work ethic and commitment. I think that my approach to the Broadway experience has changed throughout the years; I have learned to grow as an artist and individual in this company of beautiful people of color.
Anything else you’d like to share?
All these years as an artist and choreographer have taught me one very important thing: God can dream a much bigger dream for you than you could ever dream for yourself!! And that nothing good ever comes without hard work and dedication! 

Your chance to see the next generation is coming soon!
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s Summer Intensive
and Emerging Choreographers Showcase performances
take place Friday, July 20 and Saturday, July 21 at 7:30 p.m. at
the Reva and David Logan Center for the Performing Arts,
915 E. 60th Street, Chicago. Tickets are $25–50.
Tickets to the July 20 performance are available at
Tickets to the July 21 performance are available at
For information, visit
Debuting in 1996, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater is rooted in traditions of modern, contemporary and African dance, as well as storytelling, in universal themes that spark a visceral experience and ignite an emotional response in diverse audiences worldwide. Collaborating with nationally renowned choreographers across the spectrum of modern, ballet and African dance, DRDT presents work that reflects eclectic voices in contemporary life.
Photo credits for images of Ray Mercer from top to bottom:
Dirty Sugar.
Jon Dee.

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