When I left for Lausanne I felt a combination of excitement, nerves, and anxiousness. Most importantly, I felt thoroughly prepared and confident that we had addressed any issues that had arisen while training. The last issue I had to conquer was the 10-hour plane ride to Lausanne. With Houston Ballet II I had toured to locations in different time zones, so Jet Lag wasn’t the issue and except for my habit of listening to “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked before takeoff, I’m not superstitious about flying at all. I was most worried about how I was going stay focused and entertained for 10 hours in a confined place. During the flight I watched 2 movies, snuck to an empty aisle to do center splits, went to the bathroom about 4 times to do relevés, listened to my variation music about 30 times and did thera-band foot exercises. But that only got me as far as 5 hours into the trip…
Our first stop after getting off the plane was competition registration. As we drove into the city, I quickly realized the view and the week ahead were well worth the long flight. So even though the flight was the official start to my trip, I’d like to say my first memory of the Prix de Lausanne was walking into the theatre for the first time. I had seen videoblogs of previous competitions, so getting to be in the studios and the stage in person was a really special moment.
During registration I was last to be called. Not because it went alphabetically (I’m usually last) but because I was the oldest in the competition. At the time I didn’t know what was worse, not hearing my name and thinking I actually hadn’t been accepted or, realizing I was the grandpa of the group. So, to say the least, the confidence I had felt as I left Houston was slowly deteriorating.
Once registration was complete, my coach held an impromptu warm-up in the practice studio. It seemed every competitor was in there. My teachers had warned us about psyching ourselves out by watching the other dancers and kept telling us to focus on ourselves. But watching the dancers from all over the world with their exceptional technique was a daunting experience. Again, I started to question certain aspects of my dancing and to reevaluate why I was even there. I had to remember that I was there for myself. When I fully accepted that I would be dancing for myself and my future, my confidence kicked in and I was ready to compete.
They eased us into the rigorous competition schedule by having our first classical and modern classes blocked off from the public and the Jury. This allowed us to get used to our surroundings before the marking began. As each class progressed, I knew that I would be able to handle it. Every correction that was given or idea that was emphasized had already been imprinted in my brain due to my training in Houston. When Patrick Armand, our ballet teacher, explained the importance of a turned-out foot coming across before a grand jeté, or when our modern teacher explained the value of using one’s head weight to achieve off balance positions, it was confirmation that Houston had truly prepared me. I didn’t have to worry about picking up combinations, clean footwork, high and low movement, or upper body, I could apply everything I had learned and truly enjoy every moment. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Houston Ballet gave me all the necessary tools to use throughout the competition that ultimately led to my success.
The first time the Jury watched, or that we had classes in front of the company representatives, felt like watching the Oscars on TV, but for dance. I couldn’t help but have a minor freakout in my head as I saw so many familiar faces that I had YouTubed, read about in magazines, or even had the privilege of seeing dance live. On the panel were directors from schools, former principal dancers, and previous winners of the competition. There is no mirror in any of the studios, instead there are only the eyes of the judges. During the first class, I recall just staring into the eyes of the Director of the Royal Ballet School completely disregarding what the rest of my body was doing. It was a surreal moment realizing where I was, what I was doing, and who was watching. It was then that I snapped backed to reality, changed my head from straight dead on to the correct position for developé side, and kicked into game mode….dance mode.
Some memorable moments that occurred in front of the judges really stuck with me and still have me laughing. During our last judged modern class, our teacher had us improvise emotions facing the judges. As I screamed, laughed, cried, flirted, flexed, and blushed, it made me realize not to take everything so seriously. The judges enjoyed this moment, and it allowed them to see us as people, not dancers. We let loose and had a great laugh. This moment has stayed with me into the company when I need to remember to dance for myself and not to obsess over what people think or say about me.
Another standout moment is the first time I attempted to dance on the raked stage. I walked onto the practice studio that had a rake, did a turn and fell right on my butt. I quickly stood, pretended that there was a slippery spot, and tried it again. My second attempt brought the same results. I basically had to re-teach myself to turn, which freaked me out at first but also helped with my weigh placement still to this day. Having your weight slightly forward on the balls of your feet, rather than sitting back on your heels and into your hips really elevated my dancing. While I am fully content with the flat surfaces in Houston, I am proud to say that I conquered the raked stage.
The day of the semi-finals (the selections) was the first time the judges would see both of our variations on-stage in full costume. By that evening the number of dancers competing would go from 120 to 18. This proved to be the most stressful day of the competition. My goal was to make the finals, but being in the company of so many talented dancers would have been enough of a prize. I had mustered up enough confidence throughout the week, though I still had major doubts about my dancing and my future. I’m glad they have video footage of the semi-finals: I honestly don’t remember my time on stage performing because it was such a blur. What I do remember is stepping off from my contemporary solo, feeling the need to do 50 double tours in a row. An overwhelming sense of accomplishment rushed over me, because I knew that I had truly given my all out on the stage. I kept hoping I had caught the eye of a company representative.
Now just a little back story: my full name is Derrin Harper Watters. I go by Harper, but at the competition I was registered by my birth certificate as Derrin. So when they posted the results I thought I hadn’t made it. I looked for Harper over and over, and not until my fellow Houston Ballet Student who was competing came rushing over to me, did I realize that I had in fact made the finals.
To be continued…
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