A Dancer’s Journey: Lessons Learned

Our new guest blogger, Houston Ballet’s Harper Watters, picks up from where he had left off on his journey from summer intensive student to professional dancer:

I truly enjoy writing for this blog. It allows be to go back in time and see things in a different perspective. It can be difficult though, to find the time to write in the midst of a hectic rehearsal schedule. When I started this entry we were in the heart of rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Theme and Variations, a Mark Morris Ballet, as well as a company world premiere by Nicolo Fonte. During one of my rare hours off from rehearsing, I sat and watched company principals Joseph Walsh and Sara Webb in rehearsal for the balcony pas from Romeo and Juliet. Joe attended Walnut Hill, then Houston Ballet and joined the company a few years ago.

Houston Ballet's Sara Webb and Joseph Walsh perform in Ben Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet

Sara Webb and Joseph Walsh in Ben Stevenson's Romeo and Juliet - Photo: © Houston Ballet

It was incredibly inspiring watching their rehearsal knowing that Joe and I had taken very similar paths to Houston Ballet. We both went to Walnut Hill and we had both participated in Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive. Seeing him rehearse proved that it is possible to achieve goals you thought weren’t reachable. The Summer Intensive served as an appetizer course to Houston Ballet. It allowed me to get a taste of what was to come if I were to attend Houston Ballet year round. Over the course of the 2 years I spent with Houston Ballet II, my technique, strength, stamina, mental capacity, and work ethic were drastically tested and improved. That was all made possible because I participated in the Houston Ballet Summer Intensive.

When I touched down in humid Houston for the first time, with my mom by my side, it was to take part in the 2009 summer intensive. Little did I know, that in just six weeks my life would take another drastic change. When I left Walnut Hill I was performing such lead roles as “Slave Ali” in Le Corsaire, “The Prince Cavalier” in The Nutcracker, and various principal roles in contemporary and modern pieces. These roles, at the time, made it seem like I had achieved principal dancer status. I was beginning to be recognized for my talent, and my level of confidence began to increase. I arrived at the summer intensive as a Level 8 dancer, with the idea that I was going to waltz into the studio on the first day and blow everyone out of the water.

Houston Ballet Master Claudio Muñoz during class

Claudio Muñoz (Ballet Master at Houston Ballet II) during class - Photo: © Houston Ballet

During the first combination at barre, as I looked at the banana-shaped feet, 180 degree turnout, and effortless port de bras of the Brazilian and Argentinian dancers sharing my barre, I quickly realized it was me who was going to be blown out of the water. These dancers were students of Claudio Muñoz, Ballet Master of Houston Ballet II. I never would have guessed that this man, dressed in skeleton socks and printed shirt unbuttoned all the way down to Venezuela, would have possessed such a high level of dance knowledge. With an incredible sense of humor and a drive for perfection that matched, he saw my potential and would never allow me to settle for anything less than my best.

With every class he taught, came an abundance of corrections that were “AHA!” moments. His corrections were personalized and designed for each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. In general he focused on a proper rond de jambe en l’air. He emphasized the importance of maintaining turnout from devant to à la seconde, and the difficult task of transferring your weight and arm on the barre, to allow room for the leg to go to derrière. He had us think about double tours it in many different ways. What he told me was to first hit the height of the jump and then begin the turn. He had us step on a chair, to help explain the importance of lifting our hips in jumps. He had us tell stories about where we were from or who we dated, while turning or balancing, to achieve a relaxed neck. He used animal references like “parrot”, to help us realize what our feet looked like.

Claudio Muñoz's "skeleton socks"

Ballet Master Claudio Muñoz in action, wearing his signature "skeleton socks" - Photo: © Houston Ballet

During the course of the program we had the privilege of working with the company’s Artistic Director, Stanton Welch. When it was posted on our schedule that we would be having him for class, a sense of urgency fell over me and the other students… like a combination of the feeling one gets when about to enter a Miss Universe pageant, finding out Lady Gaga is coming over and meeting the President (if that makes any sense?) Nerves! Lots and lots of nerves. Shortly after he ran the first combinations, I realized why Houston Ballet was considered one of the top companies in the world. His attention to detail was unparalleled, while his movement quality and choreographic vocabulary were foreign, yet intriguing.

After working with him during the summer program I instantly knew Houston Ballet was where I wanted to dance. If I wanted to achieve this new goal of entering the company, I knew that: 1) it would not happen as soon as I imagined and 2) I would have to leave Walnut Hill. If i were to return to the latter, I felt I would only be prolonging the process of entering a professional company. I had to think where I wanted to end up and what was the best course to take. I knew in my gut, that I had to join the second company, the difficult part was convincing my parents. I took the audition, and was accepted on the spot to Houston Ballet II. It took a lot of conversations with my family and school to finally make the decision to attend HBII. I am so grateful to have such a supportive family who recognized my desire and passion for a career in dance .

Harper Watters in rehearsal with Houston Ballet's AD Stanton Welch

Harper Watters in rehearsal with Houston Ballet's AD Stanton Welch - Photo: © Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet’s summer program taught me many valuable lessons. The corrections, at first, seemed harsh, but over time I realized hidden under the tough remarks was an abundance of care. The ultimate goal of the instructors was to have each dancer achieve their maximum. Claudio and the rest of the Summer Intensive faculty gave me the tools to become an outstanding dancer, it was up to me to use these tools in the correct way. Ultimately, the program taught me to seize every opportunity presented. Whether it be to always focus in class, not to miss a correction, dancing to your maximum as much as possible, or even simply participating in a summer intensive. With Summer Programs, the opportunities are all right in front of you, it’s whether or not you are willing to make the most of them. The Houston Ballet Summer intensive was my ticket in, now it was up to me to make sure I stayed.

Harper and friends during Houston Ballet's Summer Intensive

Harper and friends during Houston Ballet's Summer Intensive - Photo: © Harper Watters

Harper Watters was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in Dover, New Hampshire where he began his dance training at the Portsmouth School of Ballet. To further his education, he auditioned and was accepted on scholarship to attend the Walnut Hill School for the Arts. He has attended both Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet Summer Intensives on full scholarship. Harper joined Houston Ballet II in 2009 and was awarded the contemporary dance prize at the 2011 Prix de Lausanne. He is now in the corps de ballet of Houston Ballet.

Follow Harper on Twitter: @Harper_Watters

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