Artist Spotlight: Francesca Harper

Acclaimed Dancer Shares Inspiration

Despite having advised the film “Black Swan” and released singles in Europe and Japan as a singer and lyricist, Francesca Harper is best known for her uniquely expressive dance performances and original choreography. Harper trained at the School of American Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet School, and The Ailey School and acclaimed dance teacher Madame Gabriela Darvash and dancer Barbara Walczak. Harper was the principal dancer in William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt from 1994-1999, and performed in Broadway productions including “Fosse” and “The Producers.” On Thursday, Harper will give a master class for student dancers at the Harvard Dance Center. She will bring her experience not only as a dancer, but also as the founder of a non profit. In 2005, she created The Francesca Harper Project, which fuses classical dance forms with text, music, and film to explore themes of politics, race, sexuality, love, and humanity.

The Harvard Crimson: What drew you and inspired you to dance?Francesca Harper: I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in dance. My mother, Denise Jefferson, was a dance teacher. She was modern dancer and ended [up] being the director for The Ailey School for 26 years.  She had been gifted in ballet, but because of the race issues in the ‘60s, she felt discouraged. She found ballet again after college. I heard her story, [and it] encouraged me.

THC: How did you transition from being a dancer to choreographing your own works?FH: William Forsythe worked very collaboratively with [me]. He would sometimes ask us to create material, which he would use in his own works. That made me think that I could choreograph my own works, and I went on to start my own company in 2005.

THC: Your works often incorporate film into the choreography. How does video function in your artistry? FH: I always have enjoyed [video]. I really loved the aesthetic it brings. It speaks as an unconscious layer to the movement on stage. And I showcased at the Video Dance Awards in 1998 in Frankfurt. That experience became integrated into my creative thesis.THC: You’re also a singer and are known for your 2003 single, “Would I?” How did you come to explore singing and lyricism?FH: Forsythe knew that I had a voice, so he had me sing at a performance, and there was a music producer that was there in the audience. [He] asked if I could release a track. It went worldwide from Germany. Then I came back to New York to work on my voice. I did Broadway for six years…including “The Color Purple.” I received principal roles as well. Now I’m currently working on my first opera, working with director Robert Wilson.

THC: What do you look forward to most in your upcoming collaboration with the Harvard Dance Program?FH: [Director of the Office for the Arts at Dance Program]  Jill Johnson and I are old colleagues and old friends. I’m looking forward to seeing the foundation she has built in the past few years. Knowing the brilliance and intellectual rigor at Harvard, I am looking forward to the exchange with students’ insight and knowledge. This will be very exciting for me.

THC: And how will you engage with students in the master class? Are there certain techniques student dancers can look forward to practicing?FH: [After] doing a warm-up, I’ll introduce some of Forsythe’s technique. He really set dance improvisation systems. Then I will also have dancers improvise and create their own dance constructions.

THC: What words do have for anyone who is interested in dance or artistic exploration?FH: [From] Martha Graham: your artistic voice needs to be honored. She says, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.” It is your duty as an artist to honor that. To anyone who wants practice their artistry, it is their duty to honor that voice and need.—Staff writer Nzuekoh N. Nchinda can be reached at nzuekohnchinda14@college.harvard.edu.

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