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Interview – Harper Watters, Houston Ballet

Harper Watters by Rob Daly

“That’s just who I am. I like to be loud, and to be fun.”

Harper Watters is a demi-soloist with the Houston Ballet, but to simply call him that would be an understatement.

Harper shot to fame after Instagram videos of himself dancing in pink heels went viral. His is an account dedicated to being himself, and along with his sizeable Instagram following, his Pre-Show vlogs on Youtube have garnered a loyal viewership. Harper draws back the curtain on ballet by giving viewers a glimpse of life backstage at Houston Ballet via his outgoing and fun personality.

“If they can relate to some one person in the company, that can be their ticket into exploring so much more about what the ballet world is, you know,” Harper said. “A lot of people will be like ‘Oh my god, you’re actually a dancer? I thought you were a random gay boy’ and I’m like, ‘gay, yes. Boy, yes. But I’m also a ballet dancer.’ I’ve pulled a lot of people into my world.”

His social media following has also led to opportunities, including features by ELLE magazine, Grindr and Urban Outfitters. But it’s also given him the platform to help in ways other than dancing. He took the opportunity to hold a fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank and those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

His Instagram posts also emulate another facet of Harper’s personality — his confidence.

“You can’t compare yourself. I mean it sounds easy to say but it’s just a reality of it – that you have things that they can’t do, and they have things that you can’t do.”

He notes that when working with famous choreographers as well, like Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor and William Forsythe, their corrections tend not to be technical.

“It’s just because everybody is so good nowadays,” Harper said. “Everybody’s so talented that it’s, ‘what is your intention behind the step, or what are you trying to say with it, how can you make it different’ – that’s what excites them.

These are choreographers who have worked with dancers for years. They’ve seen everything. So it’s important to try and bring something they haven’t seen, and not get wrapped up in what it’s supposed to look like or how someone else did it. I think about how can I do it but do it differently and make it my own.”

Happily for Harper, he’s found that Houston Ballet is a company that encourages individuality.

“Houston Ballet is a company of all heights, all shapes, all sizes,” Harper said. “We’re all very unique and have different qualities – it’s like a box of chocolates.” You never know what you’re going to get – but you know that with Harper Watters, you’ll get something fabulous.

We talked to Harper after a Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston to find out how he and the rest of Houston Ballet were doing, and to talk about his dance journey.

C&V SESSIONS WITH HARPER WATTERS

What do you have for breakfast?

I have been on a yogurt and granola and blueberry kick, but whenever I’m down or I’m feeling kind of frustrated at work, I always have pancakes with maple syrup. I’m from New Hampshire and New England. We’re famous for our maple syrup. I will say that I’ve been having a lot of pancakes and maple syrup just because it’s been a hard time right now, getting through the past few weeks. I love a good pancake!

A hard time because of the hurricane?

Yeah, the hurricane. Also, we’ve just been super, super busy. The company is putting on Mayerling — or was supposed to put on Mayerling — and it’s one of the biggest productions our company has ever done, and we’re also doing a mixed rep of three one-act ballets before that .

I’ve was just dancing a lot. A lot of people have new roles and we have a lot of new dancers in the company. Our director is still getting to know them, so us more seasoned dancers have had to do a little more.

Like all the residents of Houston, Houston Ballet has been affected by spate of massive floods, and they’ve had to cancel some upcoming performances. What’s the situation like now?

It’s kind of a day-to-day thing. We start back tomorrow, but not in the Houston Ballet studios — we’re going to be in a local studio because of the water damage in Houston Ballet. We’re still without running water and our stage is really bad so I don’t know… we’re supposed to be on on the 20th [of September] hopefully. Fingers crossed, but I think the safety of our health is what’s more important.

I think with ballet and art, people love to be transformed when they come. You know, they want to get taken away. I think that we could gift the people of Houston a moment to kind of escape from what’s going on, so I hope that we can do some sort of performance somewhere for them.

harper watters by rob dalyPic by Rob Daly.

You’ve used your following on social media to raise funds for Houston flood relief. How’s that been going?

It’s being going well. I have an audience and so that just was an extra push to kind of be like “I really need to do something.”

I didn’t lose electrical power, I didn’t have any flooding. I was very safe. And I felt a little bit guilty about that, but more than that, it means you just have to give more. So I did the fundraiser and then we opened a little – we did a little dance performance for  three days at another studio. We were teaching classes for free and we raised over $8000 dollars for that and my charity on Facebook raised $2500. We had to start something because you know, that’s just what we have to do.

What’s the mood been like among Houston Ballet dancers?

You know everyone’s kind of — Houston Ballet is a really big family. We’re not sectioned off. We’re all missing each other.

It’s a weird feeling, you spend hours with people and sometimes you’re like, “Oh I need a vacation”. But we all are just really missing each other.

We have a lot of group texts going on – ‘how are you, what are you doing.’

Today was the first day we actually could go into the studios to get our stuff, and we all were just hugging and seeing if we were okay. It’s a miracle that we are all safe. I think that’s why I want to do a charity as well.

But I think we just want to dance, you know? We’ve been off for a week and a half and it’s hard to just sit in your apartment. Normally when we’re off, we still take classes and we still dance, but being inside for days. I was doing barre on the couch and doing Theraband exercises trying to stay a bit active.

And pancakes!

Yes, and pancakes! That’s why I did extra pushups!

Like many others, you started dancing from a young age. What drew you to ballet?

My parents were both English professors so they had an appreciation for the arts. One Christmas they brought me to New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. Macaulay Culkin was in it and I was hooked. I was, like, obsessed! It was everything to me – I did my own one-man Nutcracker in my living room to it.

That was my first idea of what ballet was. But as I got older, I was more into Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater] and modern dance. I think that just was because the dancers – they looked like me!

Those are people who look like me and they’re doing amazing things – when you’re young, you don’t have an idea of what really the dance world is, so I was like ‘that’s what I’m going to work towards.’

But in learning about Alvin Ailey and then searching them on youtube and becoming obsessed with them, I saw Carlos Acosta on youtube, stuff like that… just through an obsession and through loving these videos, I kind of learned more about the ballet world. But my goal was to dance with Alvin Ailey.

harpergif1
Harper in our Plié for Pizza sweater

Was there a reason for the shift to more classical dancing?

It was when I joined a performing arts school with a ballet major and went away to do ballet summer intensives that I was like, “okay, maybe I can do ballet. Maybe I should be working towards being in a classical company.”

I remember I came down here — I came to Houston.

And the only reason I really came was because my teachers at my high school wanted me to have better training for classical ballet.

I remember that first day at the barre. The Houston Ballet 2 students were behind me and I was like “holy f—! they are so good!”

It was a huge motivation for me. The first three or four weeks at that intensive, I was like “I’m going to work my butt off to be like that.”

I think I knew that if I didn’t get a second company offer, I could go back to high school, go back to my senior year and do that. But I was offered a place at Houston Ballet II that summer and I was like, “this is a sign! I have to take this. I have to do it.”

I didn’t really know what it meant but I was like, “I see these ballet dancers, and if joining Houston Ballet II means doing more of that, then that’s what I want.”

Were your parents supportive of your decision? I heard that the initial hope was that you were to go to Dartmouth.

I was supposed to go to Dartmouth, yeah. Looking back, my parents were super supportive.

At the time though, I thought they were ruining my life! I called to tell them that I got the audition and they were like, “no, we signed a contract, you have to come back here!” And I was like, ‘”oh my God, they don’t want me to succeed, they’re trying to end me, they don’t want me to be happy!”

Both my parents went to college for four years and then they went graduate school for four years. They met at Brown and here I am, this high schooler who’s like, “peace out, I’m going to go become a ballet dancer!”

Looking back on it, it was just a lack of knowledge, you know? They had no idea what it meant to be a professional dancer — and neither did I. I think they just wanted more information, and wanted to make sure that I would be okay.

I mean, I was 16 yrs old, and here I was — African-American, gay, coming to Houston, Texas —  as a parent I’d be apprehensive as well, but they came down here and saw that my teachers were great and … somehow I ended up here. It all worked out.

I always say I’d never be where I am without my parents.

harper watters by Marina KleinwortPic by Marina Kleinwort for the Prix de Lausanne

Like you said, you are a young, gay, black male ballet dancer with white parents. Did you ever have to deal with being stigmatized or feeling excluded?

I never really experienced bullying or having to fight against negative comments.  It was more a fear when realizing that I looked different, that I was different and that there weren’t people like me.

I started to understand how to work and own that, rather than be like, “Oh gosh I’m comparing myself to everybody!” because as dancers, were already hypercritical of ourselves.

We judge ourselves every day and when you see someone do more turns or you see someone’s leg go higher, all of a sudden you start reevaluating that. So I was like, “Well, even if I can get my leg up, or even if I can do the turns, I look different — no one looks like me!”

Trusting in yourself is so important. It doesn’t happen overnight. You tell yourself you’re good enough, then someone will do a triple tour next to you and you’re like, “I’m not good enough!” But dance is so much more about — especially now.

Dance is so much more about what you bring to it rather than the steps. A solid foundation, of course it’s so important, but people want genuine emotion and they want things to be authentic.

The great performances that people do of Romeo and Juliet are the ones where the acting was amazing, rather than that developpe en sixth. It’s about trusting yourself and about what can you bring to it. That’s what has allowed me to put on pink heels and strut on a treadmill.

You’ve gained a large following on social media  – what have you learnt along the way? Do you feel the pressure to be a role model?

I think what I’ve learned through this process of gaining a bigger audience and having a little bit of popularity is that it’s important that people live their life and do the things they want to do 100% authentically, Because there’s not another Harper Watters – although there are many qualities I have that I share with other people.

It’s important for as many different stories to be told in the dance world, so that the next generation can see many different qualities they can identify with. So that they say, “okay well I have this or that person I identify with. I relate to this person in that way, and I look like that person a little bit. There’re people up there like me who are doing it, so I can do it as well!”

I don’t expect young boys to be putting on pink heels and thinking that that’s how you gain success. But maybe they can relate to my confidence. And then they look at James Whiteside or Eric Underwood or Roberto Bolle, and they pull something them. There are all these people who yes, they’re openly gay dancers. But our stories and how we tell them are different, so that the next generation has as many people to learn from.

What I can tell from looking at James, Roberto, and David Hallberg and other dancers who have similar stories to mine — it’s just an acceptance of who they are. There’s a real power, a real strength, in being you and not trying to be someone else. The real power is doing what makes you happy.

I think that people will be surprised about how or who they attract when you just put yourself out there. I think a lot of people think, “no one’s going to like what I post,” or “they’re not gonna like me for that,” or “no one else will relate,” but people will be very surprised.

I mean, I never thought I would have the response I did for playing around in pink heels, you know?

But people can relate to it and so, if I do something at the barre thousands of people who don’t even know what ballet is are watching because they’re interested. But I’m just being Harper! So I think there’s a real power in being yourself.

harper watters by dance magazine

How do you juggle your current commitments – ballet, your YouTube vlogs and instagram, and your social media work for Houston?

It never feels like work to me… I think that I was really bit by the social media bug. I love learning, and I love sharing these things. I love showcasing the talents of Houston Ballet and I’m interested in so many other things about ballet that that’s what pushes me to keep sharing more. I’m intrigued by other Youtube people who aren’t even ballet-related, I’m interested in music that isn’t just classical.

When I step into Houston Ballet, I’m ready to work, I’m ready to learn Balanchine, I’m ready to do Wheeldon. I’m ready to work my butt off for this. But when I get home, I love watching youtube and I love editing the pre-shows. It never feels like a task or something. It’s enjoyable and I love the business side, the executive side, working PR with the ballet and learning the business of it all.

It’s been a really fun process. So I think that when it becomes taxing, when it becomes hard, I’ll probably be like, “Okay, I need to step back.” But in taking it on… it felt like my dancing  improved, it felt like more opportunities have been coming my way, which is a huge motivation as well.

How have Houston Ballet reacted to your videos? Have they been supportive?

The ballet has been so supportive of me and what I’m doing. They let me go to New York to shoot for ELLE. They approved the cameras to coming to shoot Pride for Urban Outfitters. I also think that they haven’t seen decline in my dancing from taking on these opportunities. I think that if there was ever a sign of it affecting that, they would say to hold back. But that’s also a motivation for me – because I know that my dancing, my training and my ballet are number one. That’s most important, that’s why I’m employed with Houston Ballet. That makes me want to stay at my peak performance level, because I don’t want to lose opportunities that come my way.

If you ask anybody in Houston, I’m really hard on myself and I’m really hard on the other dancers, especially when we do corps work. I’m a huge perfectionist. Whatever I put on my social media, what I put on Houston Ballet, what represents me – I put a lot of thought and I put a lot of effort into it. I’ve worked hard to build it and so I think that Houston Ballet understand that, so they’re allowing me who I am. And I also think that on the flipside if I didn’t feel like I was being supported, I wouldn’t continue. You have to be in a place where you feel supported.

There’s a lot of mutual respect. I’m incredibly grateful. Our executive director was a former corps dancer in Hoston Ballet, so I think that he has an appreciation for dancers and wants to foster us for whatever comes after. I’m really appreciative of that.

Are there certain things that are off limits, or are you free to film as you please?

There aren’t really limits. It’s been a huge learning process though, like, we had to deal with the Balanchine Trust, which is really strict about showing their choreography. And then there’s music rights. And when there’s premieres, you can’t show certain costumes, but we learned all that… by making the mistake of showing it!

You were promoted to demi-soloist last year. Houston Ballet has a pretty diverse repetoire, but sometimes when you’re a male in the corps you don’t get to dance very much – in Swan Lake, for instance, the women do so much, and the boys do a bit in the first act and the third, and that’s it. What did you do to make sure you kept growing and improving as an artist to earn that promotion?

What I would say is that you have to always know your choreography. I would be third cast or fourth cast of something, and I think when you first join the company, you  think that means you’re not going to get to dance. But in fact, people will get injured. There will always be change. Someone will go off, someone will go on. Something will happen, and you will be tasked to do a part that you either don’t know, or did not get to rehearse much. But my success and a lot of the successes of guys in the company here came from being able to step in really quickly.

You have to be ready to take advantage of that moment. Your dancing and your quality for whatever the role is has to be so high, so that you can prove you’re ready for more. I’ve learned parts in the same day as the show. I’ve gone in for parts that I’ve never looked at. But because I’m fast, I think that was a real motivator for my director using me more and then pushing me more.

I did feel reach a point where I was like, “man I am dancing a lot. I’m getting these roles, but I’m not getting promoted.” and then it was then I had proven myself as reliable but now I needed to prove myself as consistent – that’s a big thing.

Ballet is such a strict art form but I think learning how to push the boundaries of it— to see how far you can push it, see how far you can take it —that’s exciting. I think that’s the whole point of ballet, and that’s what choreographers want: they give the dancers the steps and let the dancers dance with it and interpret it.

harper watters by claire mcadamsPic by Claire McAdams

What’s the plan after ballet?

I don’t know! And I think that’s kind of what’s exciting about it but right now – I’m trying to lay as many different paths as I can so that when my hips say it’s time to stop, I can gracefully go to one of those platforms that I’ve laid out.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Dance for yourself and don’t dance for others. It’s never going to be perfect. That’s why you have to step onstage and enjoy it.

Work hard when you’re training, so that when you join a company you want to have a toolbag, an arsenal of steps and skills ready to use and fall back on for your self-confidence. But push yourself in areas where you feel weak. Never settle for what you think you’re amazing at.

But when you accept that it’s never going to be perfect and you dance for yourself, that’s the beauty of dance. When you’re younger, it’s hard to remember that dance is an art form. It’s a physical art form, it’s not just steps.

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Quickfire Questions

What’s your dream role to dance?

Remansos by Nacho Duato or Red Angels by Ulysses Dove.

If you could dance any female part, what would it be and which male dancer would partner you?

Gamzatti Act II, and I would need Roberto Bolle to be my Solor!

What’s an exercise that you find particularly helpful or useful for ballet.

Pilates, and strengthening my lower back and core, A lot of my injuries were coming from my glutes being super super tight. When the hips are tight, and you can’t turn out properly then your feet overcompensate. So I do a lot of ab work. I hate it but I have to do it, and a strong core helps so much in partnering!

What’s your favourite pizza topping?

Cheese!

I think simple is the best way to go. It’s pizza in its purest form.

What camera do you use for your vlogs?

A Canon g7x.

You’ve been challenged to a dance off. Name 3 people who would be in your crew and why?

I’d have to choose Rhys Kosakowski. And one of my best friends, Joel Woellner, he’s the one who gave me my pink heels, so I would have to pick Joel. And then I would pick James Whiteside. The four of us would really slay the house.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

Viola Davis! Or Halle Berry. Or the guy from Moonlight, Mahershala Ali. But I think Viola Davis; she would get me.

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Follow Harper Watters On:
Instagram: @theharperwatters
Youtube: The Harper Watters
Twitter: @Harper_Watters

Pictures in header graphic originally by Rob Daly.

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