From DM's Archives: Dance's Mother & Daughter Act
This article was originally published in the December 1999 issue of
Sitting down with Denise Jefferson and Francesca Harper over tea and pastries is an opportunity for more than the usual mother-daughter chat. Between them, they have experienced the dance world from Martha Graham to William Forsythe, from the American Dance Festival to the School of American Ballet, from Chicago to the capitals of Europe. Jefferson has been director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center for fifteen years. Harper has been a member of William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet since 1991. Together they represent two contrasting yet complementary approaches to dance as a way of life, not just as a career.
Sharing recollections and the occasional burst of boisterous laughter in Jefferson’s Greenwich Village apartment, they form a lively, good-natured mutual-admiration society. Harper is using New York City as her base while taking a year’s leave of absence from Frankfurt to pursue individual projects that include working with Anna Deveare Smith, choreographing a work for the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, and creating a solo performance piece.
Tall, with enviable bone structure, Jefferson and Harper share an enthusiasm for the crucial contributions of dedicated teachers. But while Jefferson, who performed with Pearl Lang during the 1960s, ultimately found her niche as an educator, Harper is a born creature of the stage, whose work with Forsythe has incorporated singing and acting, along with his mind-expanding choreography. Interestingly, Jefferson is the more animated and outgoing, while Harper is more reflective and understated.
Harper, now thirty, has been exposed to dance since her toddler days, but her mother had to find her own determined way into the field. At eight, Jefferson nagged her mother about taking dance class until “she relented, figuring I was serious enough. She did research on who the best ballet teachers were, and found Edna McRae. It was really strict, very serious training, and I was the only African American in the whole school.”
Jefferson was familiar with ballet from the touring companies that passed through Chicago, where, she recalls, “Modern dance was not very big. Ballet seemed to be an exciting world, but I didn’t plan to do it professionally. I had never seen anyone who wasn’t white in a ballet company. I got more involved in my teenage social life.” She majored in French at Wheaton College, near Boston—she planned to be an interpreter—and joined the dance club only because it offered her the chance “to get out of gym.” After mastering such unfamiliar activities as sitting on the floor in a Graham-based class and improvising, she was encouraged to try a particular class in Boston. There she had her first view of Donald McKayle. “I remember hearing this deep, powerful voice,” she says. “I looked in the room and saw this gorgeous black man. It seemed like I could do everything he asked us to do, and ballet had never been like that for me. There was this incredible connection: I felt free and powerful and I just loved it.”
The American Dance Festival in 1963 provided further revelations for Jefferson. Martha Graham’s and Jose Limon’s companies were in residence; she took classes taught by their members, as well as by McKayle. “I was so hungry for all this modern dance,” she recalls. “It was the most amazing summer of my life.” She was eager to move to New York City and continue her dance studies, but her mother insisted that she graduate first.
“I came to New York immediately after graduation and headed to the Graham school,” Jefferson says. “The company was rehearsing and I peeked in. There were Mary Hinkson, Bertram Ross, and Helen McGehee—and these incredible dancers were going to be my teachers! It was like I’d been given the richest gift. I was working full-time at the Ford Foundation, but soon I was taking five classes a week. Then I auditioned for a scholarship and got it. I was getting sucked in, more and more. Pearl Lang came and taught, and asked me to join her company. I enjoyed Pearl’s work, but I was always a little shy onstage. I didn’t bask in it the way I think Francesca does. From an early age, she loved it out on that stage. She had energy, she was committed to it, and she took your eye.”
After two years with Lang, Jefferson married John Roy Harper II, a law student, and moved with him to South Carolina, teaching dance and French there and spending summers in New York City. Francesca was born in May 1969, and six weeks later Jefferson was back in class for her summer stint at the Graham school.
“We’d spend the summer in New York, and then we had to go back to South Carolina. That was hard for me. I realized I loved dance, and there was none in South Carolina. There were other issues, too. I felt at odds there, being a northern woman. With a child, you don’t know what their gifts are when they’re little, and I wanted to be in a place where she could get everything to fulfill her potential in every possible way, and get a wonderful education. I felt she and I had to leave South Carolina.”
Settled in New York City early in the 1970s, Jefferson taught remedial writing in the SEEK program, rejoined Lang’s troupe, and began teaching dance at the American Dance Center, which Lang and Ailey had recently founded. “Both companies were in residence; there was a wonderful energy and synergy,” she recalls. The ADC became little Franny’s second home; she would spend time there during evenings while mom taught and rehearsed.
Such early, intensive exposure to dance does not necessarily ensure a dance career, but in Harper’s case, the desire was there. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to do it,” she says. “I loved it. I saw how serious people had to be. There were many times in adolescence when I wasn’t so into it and preferred hanging out with my friends, but if someone asked me what I wanted to be, I’d say a dancer—and a director of a school!” Mother and daughter laugh heartily at this. “She was my idol growing up,” Harper acknowledges.
A knee injury and the difficulty of touring as a single mother led Jefferson to give up performing and devote herself to the teaching she found so fulfilling. She became a faculty member at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was offered a permanent position at ADC. “I began to really get involved in mentoring students, helping them decide what they wanted to do with their lives.” She became the ADC’s director in 1984.
Harper was enrolled in a creative dance class, but she soon expressed a preference for ballet: “I had seen a lot of dance, and I really had an affinity for ballet. It was my decision to do something different.” She began taking class at the Joffrey School, took ballet very seriously, and displayed exceptional talent. “I really pushed myself to do well,” Harper recalls. “I was in the pointe class when I was about 9, when everyone else was more like 13.” She spent two years at the School of American Ballet and performed in several New York City Ballet productions. “I loved Balanchine. For me, it was like a combination of classical and modern dance, which was very exciting for me.”
Injuries forced a withdrawal from SAB, but Harper moved on to study with two important teachers, Gabriela Taub-Darvash (“She was so about building all this power”) and former NYCB soloist Barbara Walczak, who emphasized detail, speed, and clarity. During the summers, Harper returned for various classes at the ADC. In her senior year, she was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. College admission was deferred to join the workshop ensemble at Dance Theatre of Harlem. When the company went to Russia in 1988, she was one of those asked to go along. One highlight of her three-year tenure with DTH was her memorable Hostess—leaping boldly, pearl necklace flying—in Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches. “I was rebellious,” she acknowledges. “I wanted to work on a deeper creative level, to find something really challenging.”
DTH’s 1990 half-year layoff sent her to Europe looking for other work. William Forsythe’s choreography proved a revelation: “I saw it and I said, ‘That’s it.’ ” It had an edge, which I really like. His Limb’s Theorem blew me away. I saw his wife, Traci-Kai Maier, who was a tall woman like me, and she moved with such power and expansion. I worked with Bill for an hour in the studio, and he said, ‘Come join right away.’ ” She became a member of Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet.
“It’s been such a rich experience,” she says. “I’ve done such a range of things in his work, including some speaking and singing onstage. I was in the original Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. I enjoy the intellectual stimulation, the analytical approach. As cerebral as people find his work, it always ends up having really intense emotional content. I feel he really is an original. Frankfurt Ballet is my artistic home, but after growing up in New York and having an understanding of different cultures, it was really difficult—even after eight years—adjusting to Germany. I loved the fact of living in Europe, but I missed home”
Taking a leave of absence was a difficult decision. “The reason I did it is to see if these various projects I’ve been talking about and trying to do in my free time would really start happening,” Harper explains. She’d begun choreographing in recent years, presenting a full evening of work at the Holland Dance Festival, and had also won a prize at a video dance competition.
“I love the creative process of choreography. As a dancer, it’s so speechless sometimes. Choreography gave me the chance to express and communicate with people, to talk about ideas and have an exchange.”
For three intensely hot, humid weeks in July, Harper worked with the young dancers of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble, creating Sensory Feast, a work for eight dancers set to a score by German techno-pop composer Rolf Ellmer. Authoritative and enthusiastic, Harper seemed like a seasoned choreographer as she shaped the complex, tightly energetic movement. AARE is presenting the piece during its current touring season.
Her recent projects have included taking part in several workshops and the Los Angeles performances of Anna Deveare Smith’s House Arrest, participating in a workshop of an off-Broadway musical, and performing a new solo dance-theater work in Belgium. This spring, she expects to be part of Donald Byrd’s new take on The Sleeping Beauty.
“I want to take this year and fly with it,” Harper states, sitting outside at Lincoln Center just before going to rehearse her Ailey piece. “It’s important to go out on my own, and I wanted to be based more in New York. I’m always going to be connected to Frankfurt Ballet—I’m already guesting this year—and we’ve talked about my going back on a project-by-project basis.”
“I call her ‘the tank,’ ” Jefferson observes admiringly. “If she wants to do something, I have to back off. She’s really determined, and will persevere to make it happen, which is wonderful.” Spoken like a proud mother, indeed.
Susan Reiter writes about dance for
New York Press and the Los Angeles Times.
Photo of Denise Jefferson and Francesca Harper at 2009 Alvin Ailey Gala by John Lamparski/WireImage, Courtesy LIFE