Ray Mercer with dance students at an Audition Techniques workshop at the Holland Center
From Omaha to Broadway and back again, O-pa's Artist in Residence and Advisor Ray Mercer has helped us to build our dance programming tremendously over the past year. He has led several performances and workshops for middle schoolers and students in our Nebraska High School Theater Academy.
Now based in New York, Mercer has been performing with Disney's THE LION KING on Broadway for 18 years. He's worked with several companies across the country including Philadanco, New Jersey Ballet, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and more. He's also a resident choreographer for the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program and has won several awards including a Joffrey Ballet Choreographers of Color Award.
This week, he stopped by the Holland Center and middle schools across the metro to teach students choreography from Disney's THE LION KING. At the Holland Center, he led two more advanced workshops for local dancers in the community.
We caught up with Mercer in the halls where it all began, his childhood middle school - Monroe. Get to know him and learn why he feels it's important to give back to the community that nurtured his passion for dance.
Q. What’s it like being here and walking the same halls you did as a child?
Mercer: On the way here, I found myself getting a little nervous in the car. I was a 12, 13 years old running the halls here and having experiences much like the kids here. So it’s really nostalgic. I was that little kid with dreams trying to figure out what was next and now I'm living out my passion on Broadway. It’s good to be here, back where it all started for me as a Monroe Mustang.
Q. It’s really full circle for you to come back here and mentor children in the very place you began your dance journey. How important is it for you to return to the community and share your experiences with them?
Mercer: It’s very important because I was that kid that wanted to perform. When I was their age, I was very inspired by the performers that came and shared their experiences with me. It meant the world to me. So coming back being able to share these experiences with these young adults really is a full circle moment for me.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the piece you shared at workshops this week?
Mercer: We did a piece from “Lionness Hunt” (Disney’s THE LION KING). I think it’s important because then when they go see the show, they recognize it and they can associate themselves with [Disney’s] THE LION KING.
Q: What has being a part of something so big and iconic like Disney’s THE LION KING been like for you?
Mercer: I honestly never would have imagined this for myself. I guess it goes to show that your dreams are bigger than you. For me to come from a small place in Omaha, Nebraska, in the middle of the United States, and end up on Broadway with one of the biggest shows in history - is really beyond me. I still sometimes have to pinch myself. It’s truly a blessing to come back. To know that my friends and family are proud of me and to come back, and to share all of this information with my hometown is really quite special.
Q: What advice would you give someone who has the same dreams that you had?
Mercer: I think there are no dreams too big. I constantly tell young people that you have to keep dreaming. I would encourage them to experience everything. Experience art. Experience dance. Experience musical theater. Whatever you want to do, because you never know when that spark is going to happen.
For more information regarding Ray Mercer’s residency, contact Dominic Green at DGreen@O-pa.org.