Ray Mercer – A Choreographer’s Roar
Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, Ray Mercer was always a big fish in a small pond – that is, until he joined the cast of Broadway’s The Lion King, leaving everything behind to tackle the jungle of Manhattan.
Not only is he performing 8 shows a week in Disney’s longstanding hit, but he is also pursuing choreographic opportunities with his own performing group. “Choreography for me is like being a painter or a songwriter,” he explains. “I’ve always had a story to tell. Whether it’s a lie, or the truth, or a personal experience. It has to come from a real place for me.”
Mercer started dancing at age 17 after doing children’s gymnastics, which “just wasn’t creative enough for me; it was kind of stagnant.” He went on to study at the University of New Orleans before dancing with Chicago-based Deeply Rooted for two years. But it was his first step on the Broadway stage that ignited his ambitions. “You realize then that you are one of a small pool of people. I knew that I had been blessed with something really big and I had to take full advantage of it. I have been working hard ever since.”
In 2005 he earned the Gypsy of the Year Award from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and performed at the Dancers Responding to AIDS “Dance from the Heart” event last December. “I was so thankful because they let me close the show. It gave me so many other opportunities. Wow,” he exclaims, “that was one of the great moments of my choreographic career.”
Both him and his dancers describe his style as very physical, with influences from Ulysses Dove and his experience dancing on Broadway. He admits to sneaking in time to work on his own movement during his pre-performance warm up.
But that’s not all the show has given him. “The most fortunate thing, I think, that has dropped into my life is that I have brilliant dancers right here in ‘The Lion King.’ In a weird kind of way I have my own mini-company to work with.” Some days they rehearse 3 or 4 hours before heading to the theater for a performance. “He’s an amazing choreographer,” says Kristina Bethel, a fellow “Lion King” dancer. “He has a knack for making me feel like he’s really taking my personality into consideration.”
“He’s so excited about his work,” says another dancer, Lisa Lewis. “He’s incredible.”