Words: Matt Innes
There is much more to Ray del Barrio than fancy footwork.
In Part Two of our profile on the acclaimed dancer, choreographer, director, and producer we look beyond the surface to discover what lies beneath the glitz and glamour of a life in show business.
Where the first instalment celebrated Ray’s extensive professional film and stage career, this volume seeks to develop a far more intimate portrait of Ray as a person – his family and upbringing, his philosophical and political beliefs, the experiences that have shaped him, and the causes close to his heart.
Here, Ray reveals something far more valuable than celebrity gossip or Hollywood secrets; he presents us with his own truth, in his own words.
A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN
On-stage and on-screen, Ray del Barrio demands attention.
His dancing prowess has brought him to work around the world alongside greats such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera, and Paula Abdul, to name only a handful. Few of his contemporaries could rival the sheer capacity and calibre of Ray’s work.
As an entertainer, Ray puts himself on show, holding nothing back in a grand expulsion of energy, emotion, and exuberance. But when the lights fade to black and the curtain falls, who is the Ray del Barrio that goes home to his friends and family?
“I’m certainly not the centre of the party,” Ray says.
“I actually like personal time to experience other people, my friends and hear their stories. When you do what I do and what we do in the arts, it’s such a ‘me-me, look at me’, audience-and-people-onstage career that when you get into your personal life it’s very different.
“Of course, if something needs to be run, staged, directed, or choreographed at a dinner party, you can rely on me,” he adds with a laugh.
Life is more than a cabaret for Ray del Barrio – it is a full-scale Broadway spectacular that can be navigated like a dance in what Ray refers to as the ‘choreography of life’.
“Life is a dance and sometimes it’s a wonderful, technical piece of choreography and other times it’s just static, freestyle movement that’s like breath, like oxygen,” he says.
“You have to move with the moment and be flexible, malleable; you have to breathe through things. It’s odd that as a world, probably not since the AIDS epidemic, are we dealing with a global epidemic [COVID-19] that has to do with our ability to breathe and what we do with our breath, the quality of breath.”
Ray in action, dancing with the late-great Whitney Houston in 1988.
It’s a philosophy that inevitably finds its way into all facets of Ray’s life, on and off the stage. In recent years, Ray has been applying it to help senior citizens navigate the final steps of their life performance.
“I’ve spent a lot of the past eight years since I helped take care of my father till he passed, doing a lot of senior advocacy work,” he says.
“Helping some specific seniors that were family to me transition from a home care situation into a long term care situation, using my skills of organisation. There’s a lot of paperwork involved to navigate those things; paperwork and time can be choreographed and directed when you’re helping a senior get into long-term care or helping someone who may be in the decline and soon to be passing.”
THE RAY WE WERE
To understand Ray’s worldview is to know something of his upbringing.
Notably, he was born into a prominent show business family of Argentinian descent – his father Jorge del Barrio was an esteemed orchestral composer and arranger for film and television; Jorge’s brother Eddie del Barrio (Ray’s uncle) meanwhile is a founding member of the jazz fusion band Caldera who has collaborated with the likes of Stan Getz and Herb Alpert, and co-wrote several songs with Earth, Wind & Fire.
“So, I grew up in music and real music coming from a long line of music going all the way back to my grandparents’ institute in Mendosa, Argentina for music and piano and voice. I think that all that supportive upbringing made my dance career.”
Eddie del Barrio helped compose ‘Fantasy’ (1978) for Earth, Wind & Fire
Music may have made his career, but it was nurtured alongside a deep, New Age-style spirituality that transcends organised religion to incorporate elements of the mystical and the metaphysical.
“My father was Roman Catholic and my mother was Jewish, but we grew up meditating and following Paramahansa Yogananda and another friend of the family who was a clairvoyant, an Englishwoman named Katherine Hayward, and there was also the metaphysical in Edgar Cayce,” Ray explains.
“So, I had an upbringing that was aware of spirit, aware of being conscious and making conscious choices, cause-and-effect. Sometimes we didn’t want to get in the car, but it was like: ‘get in the damn car, we’re going to Griffith Park to meditate as a family in the mountains!’. That was my upbringing.”
This early exposure to the broad spectrum of belief forms an integral part of Ray’s upbringing, and the lessons of various masters, monks, seers, and spirits still play a vital role in Ray’s personal and professional endeavours.
There was even a time when Ray considered forgoing his dance career to pursue a more committed spiritual route.
“At one point I was thinking that maybe dancing wasn’t for me and that I’d go into more spiritual work; maybe go to Unity Church or some kind of non-denominational, non-sectarian practice of meditation,” he reveals.
“I didn’t dabble in it because I grew up with it but what I thought that maybe I should use my art in order to get me somewhere, then when I get there I’d be able to use that part of my gift to impart some of that information. Really, a lot of my jobs had to do with navigating those types of things.”
BULLY FOR YOU
By all accounts, and his own admission, Ray conducts himself as a humanist for the most part, preferring peace and understanding over violence and intolerance. But watch what you say or else he’ll put out your lights.
Growing up is never easy for anyone and school can be a battlefield at the best of times, especially for Ray whose exuberant personality and penchant for dancing made him an easy target for bullies.
Or so they thought.
“In elementary school, those years, I always had girlfriends,” Ray says.
“I consider myself bisexual as a man and an adult, and people ask me about that jokingly and they ‘what’s that about?’ And I say, ‘well, once you get past holes and what you put in them, it’s about people’. Because that’s really what it is.”
“But because I danced, because I was in show business, because I had a lot of energy and I was creative and artistic, I was bullied and called a ‘fag’ at a very young age. I knew nothing about sex. . . I was like ‘what’s that about and why does this person want to hit me because of that?’ And: ‘you know what, I’m going to f…ing hit you back’.
In the crucible of childhood bullying and schoolyard violence, Ray’s sense of justice and equality were forged and sharpened to a razor’s edge. It’s something he carries with him to this day in his active pursuit for a more peaceful and tolerant world, highlighted by his advocacy work within the LGBT+ community.
“I spent my whole childhood fending of bullies and one of my bullying names – now it’s kind of funny but it was very painful when I was a kid – they called me ‘Gaymond del Fairy-o’. I know what it’s like to be bullied, I know what it’s like to have to fight not to be mocked or laughed at in any way,” he continues.
“I don’t think they called me that because I was attracted to boys; they called me that because I danced, and I was artistic and creative. It’s an interesting slur that we’re still dealing with now, but I fought through it. I kicked some arses and I took a couple of punches, but I always made sure I gave them back. Not everybody gets the opportunity to do that.”
As well as instilling Ray with the resolve to fight and stand up for what he believes in, he says those schoolyard experiences are also the reason for his acerbic sense of humour, which isn’t always to everyone tastes.
“I think that’s why my sense of humour can be a bit crass, especially my one-liners,” he says.
“It’s very Australian and British, not so much American; very honest and on the table, it’s brutal. When I was in Australia, I was told by a bouncer in King’s Cross [nightlife district in Sydney] that I had great potential to become a ‘rancid c..t’,” he laughs, “and that suits me fine.”
A TIME TO DANCE, A TIME TO MOURN
For a person like Ray – one who believes in treating people with compassion and dignity regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity – the current political situation in America has become almost untenable.
Ray says that between the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, historically entrenched systemic racism and the general state of civil unrest, America is far from being great again.
“It’s an example, and hopefully to other countries as well, what happens when people get cocky and wrapped up in the ego instead of compassion,” he states.
“We see we’re the worst in the world. You almost couldn’t write this shit – [Trump] said: ‘I’m gonna make us the best in the world’ and in fact he’s done the exact opposite – he’s made us last in everything and an embarrassment.
“The COVID, the racism, the white nationalism, the stoking of all of the hatred, trying to cut programmes, kicking people out, putting Latinos in cages. It’s unbelievable. If you said this is what is going to happen, we would have said you’re crazy. I think it’s an example of what happens when a people, country or human beings become complacent and don’t stand up for what is right for human beings.”
Putting his passion into practice, Ray has leveraged his professional status as a platform for social change, eloquently citing the ultimate responsibility of art in all its forms to critique and question society.
“The origins and purpose of theatre all the way back to the Greeks has always to bring entertainment but also discuss social content that is too difficult to have a conversation about,” he explains.
“We all gather together and we see it in a play or a musical, we see situations that are acted out in front of us in the safety of a live situation where we don’t necessarily have to respond other than with applause or emotions if we happen to be connected to it.
“The very origins of art are to capture moments and content and present or preserve them, whether it’s a photo or a beautiful painting depicting a moment we want people to see. Art is what keeps us connected with our humanity, alongside tragedy.
“It’s usually tragedy and great loss and unrest that gets people to feel, gets people angry, gets them activated and motivated. But art is this great unifier and it gives everyone an option to extrapolate what they think from the piece.”
As such, many of the career choices Ray – which projects to take on and what roles to pursue – has been ultimately decided on the basis of their potential impact for motivating change, whether it be a film about a town where dancing is forbidden or one depicting real-world struggles.
“A lot of the choices that I get to make have to do with some kind of conscious message or conscious decision to bring light to a subject,” Ray says.
“Even from the very beginning I’ve been very attached to projects that had some kind of connection to humanity and some of the things that we need to fix or work on or be brought to light.
“That was my experience with ‘West Bank Story’: I had done ‘West Side Story’ as Chino in the 30th anniversary company. ‘West Bank Story’ was like a Mel Brooks-y comedic take of ‘West Side Story’ but it was [about] the unrest in the Middle East, in the Gaza Strip.
“It was a student short film, so I was giving back to students, but I took the job and was interested in the job because I realised there was civil unrest there and nothing’s happened. We won the Oscar in 2006 and here we are and that situation in the Middle East is still nowhere near being fixed and healed. Here was a piece of art that made a political statement while trying to bring love and light into the situation with a serious message.”
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Ray’s story is far from over.
There are still dances to dance, songs to sing and fights to win. There is still injustice to be rectified and equality to be strived for. But Rome wasn’t burnt in a day. Meanwhile, there remain people all over the world craving to be entertained and granted escape from their worries and woes.
That, Ray comments, is the entertainer’s burden but also their blessing.
“It’s interesting the weight artists carry on their shoulders,” Ray remarks.
“Some of our great artists have fallen because of their inability at some point to deal with how extraordinary their gift is that was given to them. It is a gift that’s given to you; you work for it but at some point, you realise ‘wow, not everybody gets this’.
“I know not everybody has been lucky enough like me to not be 20 feet from stardom but right next to it, leading it around on stage, interacting face-to-face with it. And I’m not done but it’s been an extraordinary journey.”