How First Soloist Harper Watters Creates Community at Houston Ballet

January 2, 2024

Naturally drawn to dance from a young age, Harper Watters also sought out a sense of community throughout his training. The only boy enrolled at his local studio in New Hampshire, Watters eventually enrolled at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, which brought him to a life-changing audition for Houston Ballet’s summer intensive at the age of 15. “I did a lot of auditions, but Houston Ballet was the only one that I laughed in, and it was the only one where I connected with the teacher, Claudio Muñoz, who ended up being my second company director,” recalls Watters. “I’d always been craving community and feeling like I could turn the volume up on who I was as a person, and I felt that in the audition,” he explains. “I knew, no matter what level I was placed in, Houston was going to offer me something that I needed.”

Now in his 13th season with Houston Ballet, Watters, who was promoted to first soloist in 2021, has found himself in a position to help create a sense of belonging for others. He started a video series, “The Pre-Show,” in 2015. “I was starting to peel back the curtain on what it was to be a classical ballet dancer, and I was breaking the mold and shifting peoples’ perceptions of what a classical ballet dancer looks like, who they love, how they act, what interests them,” he says. That sometimes called for dancing in sky-high heels on a treadmill, and other times shining a light on the work of Black, queer dancers Watters has been inspired by. “If I authentically share the work that I’m putting into the roles I’m dancing, and the dancers who inspire me, and the things that I love, then my hope is that maybe that inspires others to advocate for themselves or other people who need it.”

a male dancer wearing jeans and a tank top posing with his arms over his head against a mirrored background
Photo by Quinn Wharton.

The Initial Spark

“My love of dance actually started from watching the Olympics and seeing Dominique Dawes on the balance beam. And then one of the first gifts my parents got me was the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker with Macaulay Culkin on VHS. That inspired me to put on little shows in my living room, and the curiosity about dance and what it was led me to taking classes.”

An Eye-Opening Moment

“My dad was an English professor at the University of New Hampshire, and we would go see the touring companies that performed there. When the Alvin Ailey second company came, that was a big moment for me because I had loved dance, I had obsessed over dance, but I had never seen anybody the way that I looked dance. It felt natural to say, ‘Oh, I have to be a modern dancer, and that’s where I’m supposed to be,’ but I think that is somewhat limiting. The second that I came to Houston in 2009, that’s when classical ballet felt attainable, because I felt like I had one foot in the door.”

A Memorable Part

“I had never really thought I was a prince or embodied what a prince was, so the journey of dancing my first Prince in Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker was a big moment for me. It’s also a great opportunity to lead a ballet, and I was promoted to demi-soloist during that time.”

A Dream Role

“Roles like Romeo that are of the human experience and you’re dealing with loss and telling a story, they were quite intimidating to me. But having danced in and kind of touched on roles that are very character-driven recently, I’d love to dance Romeo in Romeo & Juliet.”

A Piece of History:

“Every time I revisit Stanton Welch’s Clear, I discover new things. I’ve danced it with dear friends like Chun Wai [Chan], and now I’ve danced it with Naazir [Muhammad] and Eric Best in New York. With Julie [Kent], who originated the role, now being our co-director, it’s really special to have her in the studio working with us.”

His Pre-Performance Routine:

“I used to be someone, because of my age, where I could sort of walk into the show and just hit it. But over the past few years, I really need to get my body ready for what it’s about to do, and Pilates has been a big part of my routine. I like to do it in the morning, and if we have shows, I’ll go in about two hours before and do my Pilates warm up to really set my body up.”