By Donalevan Maines
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?” —William Butler Yeats, Among School Children
Dancing is a silent art form, says Harper Watters, but his success at Houston Ballet has taught him that he has a voice. “There is a lot of power in words,” explains the out 24-year-old dancer in the company’s corps de ballet. “I have been solely focused on being a dancer, but I realize there is so much more I want to do, and feel like I have to offer.”
On social media, he says, “People reach out to me daily for advice. I tell them to embrace who you are, fully embrace your passion and go with that, full-force. I also have a platform to tell the world how Houston is a mecca for the arts, especially ballet. It’s really important to share that message.”
Beyond his career as a dancer with an insanely sculpted body, Watters believes that projects lie ahead that will allow him to inspire others “to stay true to yourself 100 percent and not suppress aspects of who you are.” The projects “might be in front of the camera; they might be bringing people like me into the dance world. I don’t know.”
Watters was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a teenage mother and a father who was in jail. Two weeks later, he was adopted and began his life as the only child of a white couple in Dover, New Hampshire. The dancer considers them his only immediate family.
“I started dancing when I was six or seven,” says Watters, “purely because I had so much energy. My parents say I was a constant mover. They knew of a local dance studio where I would have something to do after school.”
In his first public performance, which was videotaped at the end of his first term in dance class, Watters says, “There was me in a sea of girls. I wore a gold lamé vest and black jazz pants.” The videotape shows Watters in front of the teacher, ignoring her direction. “I was living in the moment, with no awareness of anyone else on stage.”
Watters attended grades one through nine at a private New England prep school. “I was athletic, in that I was physically active, but I was not drawn to sports,” he explains. “Luckily, we had an arts program for dance and theater. In fifth grade, they put me in senior-high classes because of what I could do, how I danced, and the energy I had for it. That is when my excitement for dance really took off.”
Following his freshman year, Watters came out to his parents and to several schoolmates. “I was super, super nervous and scared to go back to school. I was terrified,” he says. “I knew deep down that I needed to go where I would be accepted and not feel petrified. While coming out felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, an overwhelming sense of fear began to set in. When I returned to school, would everyone still like me? Would people treat me the same way? Growing up, I had never experienced issues for being the only student of color. But now that I was out, I convinced myself I was too different, and began to create scenarios in my head of being bullied. Looking back, I’m certain my peers would have been receptive, but at the time the uncertainty was too much. Knowing that I could dance, I knew that an arts environment would be supportive and understanding of who I was and who I needed to evolve into. I never knew a career in dance was possible, so it’s crazy to think mine began because I came out. It’s why I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”
Watters found “a way out” by auditioning for and being accepted into Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts, a coeducational boarding school for the arts in Natick, Massachusetts, near Boston. “Five days a week, we had regular college-preparatory academics from 9 a.m. to 2 or 2:30 p.m., then [the classes for our specific disciplines] began at 6:30 p.m.,” says Watters. “In ballet, I might have technique for an hour and a half, or men’s class or partnering or variations.”
He attended Walnut Hill his sophomore and junior years, along with “summer intensives” (three- to six-week programs) at Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet. During the summer before what would have been his senior year at Walnut Hill, Watters joined Houston Ballet II, the group’s second company, which Watters compares to “the minor leagues in baseball.”
“That is when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh. I can have a career in dance, with full-time training,’” he says.
While Watters was performing with Houston Ballet II from 2009 to 2011, Houston Ballet director Stanton Welch chose him to represent the company at the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition in Lausanne, Switzerland. Watters won the competition’s contemporary dance award and placed sixth overall. He also scored a contract as a Houston Ballet apprentice.
His bio explains, “Since then, Watters has danced a variety of roles, from a variety of the world’s leading dance choreographers. He has enjoyed dancing roles such as Performer in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère, various roles such as Gopak and Lead Flower in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker, as well as roles in Stevenson’s Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. He has danced ‘Theme 1’ in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, as well as roles in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Jewels, and Ballet Imperial. He has danced Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes; Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations; StantonWelch’s Divergence, Clear, Of Blessed Memory, Sons de l’âme (Sounds of the Soul), Maninyas (green couple), and Play; Jerome Robbins’ The Concert; Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan; and Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta and Petite Mort. He danced in the world premiere of Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration and created roles in Azsure Barton’s Angular Momentum, Garret Smith’s Return, and Stanton Welch’s The Rite of Spring and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Trumpet).”
Clear, which Stanton Welch also directed for the American Ballet Theater in New York City, felt especially important to Watters, he explains, “because we got to create our own story to it. It was only steps—no plot, no set, and very simple costuming—so we got to lend our own interpretation to it. I really enjoyed that.”
A “rite of passage” for Watters was last fall’s Manon by Sir Kenneth McMillan, in which he was cast in a trio with two soloists who are farther up the pecking order in the ballet company. “It was intimidating to me, but I knew when I was done with that I was capable of dancing and blending in with soloists. It felt like a stepping-stone: ‘Now, you’re at the next level.’”
Onstage and off, Watters has enjoyed spending his formative years in Houston, which began as a teenager living with other dancers in a dorm-like townhouse in Montrose. When he turned 18, Watters recalls standing in line outside a popular gay nightclub, thinking, “This is the greatest thing ever. I’ve finally made it!” He adds, “Of course, I could never go back there, to ‘jump, jump, jump’ and have a headache in the morning.”
Today, fans are more likely to find Watters and his tight group of friends watching RuPaul’s Drag Race or enjoying conversations over coffee, as well as plotting their next moves.
Watters, who moved to his own place in the Heights after signing a contract with Houston Ballet’s main company, spends hours of dedicated practice, which he often chronicles with photographs on Instagram. He labeled a photo of himself rehearsing “single turns” as “relationship turns,” cleverly telegraphing to the world that nobody has “put a ring on it” yet.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.