The Dance Theatre of Harlem returns to the Auditorium Theatre in November. The company will be performing a new piece by choreographer and dancer Francesca Harper, System, which explores topics including race, gender, and economics.
The Auditorium Theatre asked Harper a few questions about the new piece and her work.
How did the ideas behind System develop? What spurred you to choreograph the piece?
Each time we assembled for rehearsal there was an event in the media that affected us very deeply as African Americans. In 2014, when we first started rehearsing, Eric Garner and Michael Brown were present in our minds and recently we experienced the police shootings that also resonated deeply within us all. We felt it was a sign for us to take the opportunity to translate how we felt about what was happening in the media and in the world through dance.
How long have you been working on the choreography for the piece, and did you make any changes as new political, social, and economic events unfolded across the U.S. over the past few years?
I have been working on it since 2014 when I was asked to create several pieces to composer John Adams’ music for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was definitely influenced by what has been happening in the world over the last few years.
System explores topics including race, gender, and economics. Why are these topics important to you?
I am an African American woman and have been dealing with discrimination for my entire life. It has been challenging on many fronts. I, like others, am constantly trying to figure out how to crack open the systems that inhibit us personally and keep us from feeling comfortable in our own skin.
System will make its Midwest premiere at the Auditorium Theatre here in Chicago. How do you see System relating to the current political and social climate here? In other major cities?
I was born in Chicago, at Mercy Hospital, so it is fortuitous to have the premiere in a city I consider my second home.
System refers to the systemic issues that are in place in our world globally. It refers to traditional systems that hold us back and hold back our children. It refers to systems that are structured with a social imbalance and debilitate our people. It refers to systems that have been changed by one brave person speaking up. System is a work that explores our history and the lives of human beings courageous enough to challenge existing systems and redefine through empathy, humanity, and love.
What initially led you to get involved with the Dance Theatre of Harlem? How did you decide to pursue a professional career in dance?
I started my dance career at Dance Theatre of Harlem after I graduated from high school. After being named a Presidential Scholar and performing at the White House, I traveled to Paris and Russia my first year with DTH.
I always knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer since I was a little girl. My mother had shared her story about how not having seen any African American ballerinas as a child discouraged her from pursuing ballet. My mother was my biggest inspiration and support. She was a Martha Graham dancer who became the director of the Alvin Ailey School for 26 years and created opportunities for young artists to pursue their dreams.
You’ve made various TV appearances and worked as a ballet consultant on the film Black Swan. Tell us a little bit about those experiences.
I performed on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Oprah Winfrey Show when I was in The Color Purple musical. I performed in The Producers movie musical, after performing in the staged version, and I also was a principal actor on the HBO show Boardwalk Empire. As a ballet consultant for Black Swan, I worked closely with director Darren Aronofsky to give him some insight into the life and experiences of a ballet dancer.
What’s next for you?
I will continue to make works and attempt to deepen my experiences. It is a gift to create and being given the opportunity to collaborate with all of the incredible artists I work with. It has been a true honor to work with the talent at DTH and
return to where I began this entire journey.
Currently, I am working with my company, the Francesca Harper Project. We will be performing the work I created for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Michigan with a full orchestra entitled Creatures of Prometheus by Beethoven on October 24, 2016. I have a residency at the ballet center at NYU from January to May in 2017 to create a new world premiere. I am currently a cast member of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More as the jazz singer Ceci Robertson. I am a producer for a feature film entitled Lyrical, and I will also be performing The Look of Feeling, my solo performance, in Stuttgart, Germany next year.
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs at the Auditorium Theatre November 18-20, 2016.