The Evolution of "My Story" by Francesca Harper
2017 UBW Choreographic Fellowship Candidate Francesca Harper offers insights into her artistic trajectory through personal narrative and in conversation with dance journalist Zita Allen. This article was developed for UBW's five-part series of articles offering insight into this remarkable co-hort of choreographers shaping the world of dance today.
"Like Euridyce, I think I have reached a point in my life that I have to look back to make sense of moving forward. Both of my parents have passed, I have become a mother, and am living a life that is very different to decades of my life as an independent artist, touring the world with Ballet Frankfurt or performing on Broadway. Now, my choices from day to day constantly affect others. It has prompted a period of deep reflection. In this new phase, I feel like I am constantly contemplating mortality and what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have also uncovered a deep need to document my experiences in various ways so my daughter, the younger generation, and aspiring artists can have more information. I don't know why I was born to two people who gave themselves over to civil rights, feminism, and community work, but I do know that the work they did in their lives, has given me a deep sense of purpose and reinforces this feeling of belonging. Memories of our intersectionality have soothed my heart as I look back to move forward into this a new chapter in life.
As a little girl I fell in love with ballet, a world of fairies and sylphs. But a world that celebrated traditional white culture. I saw very few other African American girls that wanted to pursue ballet, and very few African American women in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre. I found this disheartening. However, my mother shared a story that inspired me. Her dance teacher, Edna McRae, told her she was extremely talented and could become a professional dancer. But she’d have to fight because there were no principal ballerinas of color in any of the major ballet companies. This story, drenched in racial injustice, fueled my passion to become a ballerina. An infinite number of plies, tendus, and pirouettes became my armor. Growing up as a woman of color in the ballet world was a challenge. I was lucky enough to have support from mentors who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of determination, and guided me towards communicating truthful emotions through my dance.
I studied at the Joffrey Ballet School and The School of American Ballet, but my most influential teachers were my godfather Walter Raines, Director of The Dance Theatre of Harlem School and my mother Denise Jefferson, Director of the Alvin Ailey School.
My senior year of high school I auditioned for the Ailey Company in my deshanked pointe shoes. I highlight that because Ailey was a Modern / Jazz Company. After the audition Mr. Ailey, who had known me since I was three, took me in his office, looked me in the eye and asked “didn’t I want to be a ballerina?”. I started crying and a sense of relief overtook my body, because he was right. I went to Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) the next week and received a contract with their Junior Company, quickly became an apprentice with the main company, and traveled to Paris and Russia my first year there.
When DTH was having financial difficulties, we were laid off for eight months and I freelanced, traveled to Europe, saw William Forsythe’s choreography in Frankfurt, Germany and instantaneously knew I wanted to perform with Ballet Frankfurt. I joined his company in 1991, became a Principal dancer in 1994, and was constantly stimulated by the spectrum of artistic opportunities I was given. I danced en pointe in one piece, would recite text in the next, and sing in another.
I started choreographing while working collaboratively with Bill Forsythe and choreographed my first full evening work for the Korzo Theater in Den Haag, while I was still dancing in Ballet Frankfurt.
I moved back to New York and with the taste for acting I’d developed in Frankfurt, thought Broadway would be a good place to explore next. I performed in Fosse, All Shook Up, The Frogs, and The Color Purple. I performed in the national tour of The Producers, and took on leading roles in Sweet Charity and Sophisticated Ladies. In 2005 I started my own company The Francesca Harper Project (FHP). We’ve been touring internationally for over ten years now.
Besides FHP, I have choreographed on the Ailey Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dallas Black Dance Theater, for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harvard University, Barnard College, Princeton University and many more.
While developing my new piece, (y)ourstory, a participatory work exploring autobiographies (which had a work-in-progress showing at Harlem Stage this spring), I had a visceral realization: I need to clearly tell my own story. This work will integrate both my ballet training and my contemporary training; my love of the dance-theater that I became fluent in while working with Forsythe; and the acting and singing I did both with Bill and the work I continue to do in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. My Story will stretch my voice in every way. Needless to say, this will be a journey, but one I need to, and am ready to make. Another idea I’m ruminating on is less formed, but has just as strong a hold on me is I want to explore my language of contemporary ballet, research how to make ballet more accessible, to bring this art form closer to the people, to being for everyone, as I felt Ballet Frankfurt did.
I reached out to writer and scholar Zita Allen whose work I admire greatly to interview me and delve more deeply into what my current artistic research is:"
ZDA: What are you working on and planning on researching in the next two years?
FH: Currently I am researching and developing the dramatic components of my work. While most of my professional experience has been in dance, acting has become a significant in my life. It allows me to delve deeper into intentionality and the process of personalizing movement. What’s the connection? What are the collaborative truths that are being shared from my point of view as the griot/translator, designer/choreographer and/or the dancer/actor/artist?
This is particularly important at this point in my life as most of my professional experience has been that of an African American woman in the predominantly white world of ballet and Broadway. Lately, my work has traveled through the acting and dance worlds as I’ve begun to use both the voice and music to personalize my work while shaping (y)ourstory. What I want to do now is allow My Story, to be incorporated into (y)ourstory.
ZDA: Given that creativity is an organic process that can result in the transformative evolution of the initial vision into something new and unexpected, can you describe a rough sketch of the work you currently have in mind?
FH: I envision My Story (my autobiography) as a component of a larger immersive work that interconnects with the autobiographies of others. I want to create a full-length and immersive work that utilizes dance, music, and narrative in a non-traditional setting. It dives into our autobiographies and discovers intersections, and connections with others.
ZDA: Based on your description of the shape and scope of the work it sounds like it’s not only an immersive work but one that relies on collaborative process.
FH: That’s true. There was a moment, as I started working on the stories of the dancers in (y)ourstory, when I realized they were giving me their lives and I felt they had to be managed with real care. Their stories and experiences impacted me deeply. I sat there and had to really…it slowed me down. I needed to consider where I was taking the work and to make sure I was taking care of them. They were revealing secrets and some of them were deeply personal. The truthful human story behind all it is really what touches others.
ZDA What are some of your influences in developing this work?
FH: Bill Forsythe, Anna Deavere Smith, Susan Batson, Alvin Ailey and my mother, Denise Jefferson. As you know, I for years I danced with William Forsythe and I grew up at the Ailey School beginning at three years old through my high school years. My mother was both a dancer and head of the Ailey School and a key architect of the School’s curriculum.
As a child I was able to watch Alvin at work. As a student, he used to come into our lounge in his socks and ask how our grades were. He knew each of us by name. Bill Forsythe was very similar. He would come into the studio in his socks and sit down with us and we would share our personal stories with him and he with us.
With the two of them, for me, there was this relaxed personal connection that was at the root of the work. I think many successful creative people understand that the creative process is really all about the sharing… Now, for me, too, it is about this sharing this personal connection with each dancer. It is actually part of my process, to sit down and talk.
ZDA: What drives you to create works with a narrative thread? Are there particular messages you feel driven to communicate to your audience or that you want to prod them into discovering for themselves?
FH: Working on My Story, has made me think about myself as an African American woman with all this training in the world of ballet. My mother’s story is my primary inspiration as I look at this world from her point of view and share the experience of what prevented her from pursuing dance as a ballet dancer. Yet, it also allows me to acknowledge her strength. She became a modern dancer and later head of The Ailey School and an architect of a program that today trains thousands of dancers of color to be more than proficient in ballet. I think she poured her frustration into the work and translated it into productive energy. My mother’s story inspired me to become this strong, well-trained ballet dancer in a world that historically was not open to her or, years later, not totally open to me. Driven by my mom’s experience of racism in ballet, I worked extra hard to be taken seriously in that world and had a wonderful time becoming a Principal Contemporary Ballet Dancer in Ballet Frankfurt.
In many ways, I am an heir to this countercultural movement in ballet that includes dancers being both diverse and empowering their personal voice.
When I was a little girl in the children’s program at the Ailey School, although I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer, I remember taking an African dance class and the feeling an innate connection to it. It felt so natural and organic that I really felt like it was in my DNA. On the other hand, I had to do battle in the world of ballet. I remember having to straighten my hair and put it up in the bun in order to make sure I looked like all of the other girls. I think that’s what I’m coming to terms with in My Story. It wasn’t until years later while doing a play in Atlanta about a Black dance company, that I realized how much assimilating I had done as a child in the predominantly white institutions and how much of my own kind of groundedness I had been willing to relinquish to fit in. This is also at the heart of what drew me to William Forsythe’s work and why I worked with him for eight years in Germany.
ZDA: What was it about William Forsythe that attracted you to him as a choreographer?
FH: When I saw the piece, Limbs Theorem, a ballet designed to Thom Willem’s electronic music with its almost African rhythms. I was blown away. In addition, I felt he shared a deep connection to African American culture. When I saw Ballet Frankfurt, I immediately thought, that’s what I want to do. That was it! I had never seen anything like his work and the fact that Forsythe took that chance to create this hybrid language was amazing. What’s also so interesting is the culture he fostered at the Frankfurt Ballet. After a rigorous classical ballet class we would put on Misty Elliot and Busta Rhymes and we would jam in the studio to that music en pointe. Through that simple gesture he was telling us how important our culture was to him, and how much it inspired him.
My mission is simple – I want to take the time to examine my personal story and document my experience in contemporary ballet. Because I do feel in our current society, we have very little sense of ownership as African Americans when it comes to ballet. For example, it is not commonly known in the ballet world that at one point a third of the Ballet Frankfurt’s Company consisted of people of color. If we don’t have documentation of the change that has already been established, we will get looked over again and I feel very strongly that this cannot and should not happen.
ZDA: Explain how this ties into the a longer term vision for the work you wish to do in the coming years. It seems to grow organically out of the work you’re doing in your first year developing My Story.
FH: You know, I think spending time researching My Story will, on an intimate personal level, bring me closer to defining contemporary ballet and my mission moving forward, while also helping me understand my history and why I’m so passionate about it. What is really at the root of this is the passionate desire to make sure that there is a seat at the table for African American dancers in the ballet world. In that respect it’s a natural outgrowth of being the daughter of my mother – a woman who helped shape the dance world as it is today and a father who as a Civil Rights lawyer helped make the world a more inviting place for people of color. What I feel is important is to redefine the world of ballet to inspire systemic change and for people to feel comfortable in their skin.
Zita Allen, the first African American dance critic for Dance Magazine, has written for the Amsterdam News, New York Times, Village Voice, Essence and others. Her works also include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 25th Anniversary Souvenir book, the Kennedy Center’s "Masters of African American Choreography" booklet, the American Dance Festival/PBS documentary Free to Dance website, the book Black Women Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (Scholastic) and several chapters in the Smithsonian’s book Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theatre Shaped American Entertainment (Random House). Ms. Allen holds a Masters Degree in Dance History from New York University.