SERVING UP SELF-CREATION
HARPER WATTERS is a soloist for the Houston Ballet. Through his work with the company, the viral videos of him dancing in towering pink heels, and his advocacy work, HARPER serves as a role model dedicated to empowering those in his communities to live in their authentic expression. As our luminary for the LES candle, which represents creative self-creation, HARPER dances us through what 2020 has been like for him.
How does dance allow you to explore and express your identity?
Learning to self express through dance has definitely been a journey. When I first started dancing I thought I had to emulate the dancers I saw at the top and resemble the roles I wanted to dance. White, macho, heterosexual. I forced myself to try and be something I wasn’t. When I began to embrace my uniquenesses and bring more of myself into my work, my dancing got better, and my opportunities increased. I’m a soloist now with the Houston Ballet, not just because I dedicated myself to the work but because I danced my best when I felt my best, and I felt my best when I was presenting the the most unfiltered version of myself.
Have you ever been surprised with what you have discovered about yourself through dance?
Absolutely! Every storyline in classical ballet is heteronormative. Just knowing that every story ballet romance was male to female I immediately thought I will never be the dancer I want to become, because there is a certain area of dance that I just can’t relate to. At first it pushed me back, but nobody likes complacency. So I switched my perspective and began looking for traits and emotions I shared with the characters, that I could build on.I take this mindset with me offstage as well. How can I connect with someone that is "different?" How can we relate to one another? These questions have allowed me to discover amazing roles and experience real growth as an artist and as a person. Now we just have to start making change in the type of stories being told onstage!
You are the ambassador for the LES candle and the color orange, which is embodying the value of ‘Creative Self-Creation’. What does this mantra mean to you?
Creative self-creation I think is the unofficial job description for a dancer and an artist. It’s my job to use my mind and body to embody and bring to life thoughts and ideas. When I learn steps for a new work, I’m not just thinking about “move my hand on this count” or “what comes after the jump?" I’m constantly thinking about “what am I trying to say with each and every step?" Just like dance, self creation is an ongoing process. I can’t enter the formula to receive the answer or solve the problem. Dance and self-creation requires patience, diligence, a willingness to make mistakes, and heart.
The formal structure of dance and the fluid nature of queerness intersect so beautifully in your work. What has the journey of integrating these two aspects of your life looked like?
My queerness and work intersect because I need them to work in harmony so I can be the best dancer I can be. It was the most uncomfortable feeling steeping onstage or in the studio knowing I was forcing something that wasn’t meant to be. The minute I experienced the freedom of dance with the freedom of self expression I knew I had tapped into something that would allow me to grow as a dancer. It’s a journey I am still on, a journey that still has obstacles, but it’s one I’m so thankful I began because accepting my queerness is the reason I am where I am.
Why do you think your work resonates so strongly with people?
I just think people have excellent taste! No, I’m not exactly sure, but I do know the work I respond to the most and frequently revisit, is the work rooted in honesty. It’s difficult to put into words but you just know when you’re experiencing something that comes from the heart! I also pay attention to trends. A lot of my work is to push ballet into mainstream appreciation. I try to inject elements of pop culture into my work as sort of an invitation into the classical ballet world. Showing people that their preconceived ideas of what ballet is or has to be are false, and also showcasing the endless possibilities of where ballet and dance can go and intersect with other genres. So it’ either that or my obsession with Beyonce. Everyone lives Queen Bey.
Have you seen moves towards inclusivity for queer people and people of color in ballet?
I’ve definitely seen moves. We’re seeing more diversity in the dancers, we’re seeing more representation in dance makers, and who’s in charge of companies. What we’re all waking up to now, is that inclusivity and diversity is one step, being anti-racist is another. Now the work begins to address micro-aggressions and well intended ignorance across all levels in the ballet world. At Houston Ballet we are committed to and focused on changing the infrastructure that ballet was built on, so that it reflects the people and artists who make up the company.
As an LGBTQ+ individual, what has PRIDE historically represented to you and how is that shifting this year?
My pride tagline for 2020 is, we need to celebrate our queer legends so the next generation knows that they can become them. I am a black gay classical ballet dancer. I have the honor of saying that because of the dance legends who paved the way for me, showing unwavering courage and determination in going against unpopular opinions to achieve their dreams and uplift their community. Honoring their legacy every time I step on stage is what Pride means to me. With Pride celebrations shifting this year it’s important to also remember Pride can be wearing the nail polish, chopping your hair off, putting on the heel. Pride is stepping into a dance studio. By going against the status quo and unpopular opinions, you are exemplifying Pride. Pride is personal activism for the societal fight to end stereotypes and achieve inclusivity and equality for all.
Recognizing the civil injustices impacting communities of color, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community, how do you choose to use your voice for positive change?
I will continue to listen and learn. The more I know the more confident I am in having conversations and confronting racial injustice. My success as a black dancer who is part of the LGBTQ+ community is because of the black trans women who marched first. We need to continue to share stories and honor our history so the positive change our queer family fought for finally becomes seen and realized.