The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

Resident guest artist working with university dancers to create piece for spring concert

<p>University of Richmond's&nbsp;Modlin Center for the Arts.</p>

University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts.

Francesca Harper has danced on stage from the White House to the University of Richmond. Harper is visiting UR for the second time as a resident scholar in the dance department to work on creating an original piece with a group of the University Dancers.

Harper came to UR and choreographed a piece eight years ago. She said she had loved working with the students and Anne Norman Van Gelder, the director of dance.

Van Gelder and Harper have remained in contact over the years, and when they found a time that aligned with their schedules, Van Gelder invited Harper back to campus to create another original work for the University Dancers, Van Gelder said.

After rigorous auditions, Harper chose 10 dancers to work with for this piece, Van Gelder said. The piece – unnamed at this point – will premier in the University Dancers’ 34th annual concert, IN/MOTION, on March 1 in the Alice Jepson Theater at the Modlin Center for the Arts. 

The Francesca Harper Project – Harper’s non-profit organization – has been offering its service of art to work with communities and educate them. The project was founded in 2005 and is "dedicated to creating groundbreaking dance, music, and theater works," according to its website.

The goal of Harper’s company is to be innovative and embrace the humanity and diversity that makes it up. The foundation of the company comes from Harper's direction and choreography, her aspiration to create classical dance forms, deconstructed and fused with cutting-edge text, music and film, according to the website.  

Harper is a performing artist and choreographer, focusing on multi-disciplinary works. She travels to different schools and companies helping choreograph pieces. Before coming to Richmond, Harper was in Brazil working on a ballet her friend is directing.

Harper works with all types of groups, ranging from schools and universities to public theaters. Her newest project – with Planned Parenthood – began in early October.

The piece with Planned Parenthood is a video campaign that will be streamed across the nation. This is the first time Harper is working with Planned Parenthood, and she is choreographing the video. 

When Harper came to UR for her last residency, she was inspired by the feminist movement, which also inspired Instinct 11:1, her last piece at UR, she said. This time, she said, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings inspired her as she worked with a group of strong women. 

Harper encouraged the dancers to share their experiences and learn more about the other people in the cast, junior Madison Ernstes said.

“We discussed raw topics and shared personal stories as a group,” Ernstes said. “I feel that really informed our movement quality because the topics we discussed were so emotional, it allowed each dancer to go on her own journey through the work.”

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Harper said working with the students was very collaborative.  

“Some of the work is theirs as well – it is more of an exchange between the two groups,” Harper said. 

The dancers in the group, in turn, said they recognized Harper’s desire to work with them. 

“She wanted to get to know us as individuals and valued our thoughts about the piece, which made it a very collaborate-creation experience,” sophomore Emma Davis said. 

Sophomore Karen Fleming worked with two scholars-in-residence in the dance department last year. This year, she is working with Harper. 

“We were all equal collaborators in the creative process, and that was so refreshing,” Fleming said. “The passion she brought to every rehearsal was invigorating! I was so inspired by the end of the week.”

At first, a new piece such as this one at UR seemed daunting to Harper, but she said it was nice to see it all coming together. 

Harper still dances and has expanded into acting and singing as well. She tries to bridge together the different art forms through her practice in order to create her best work, she said. The different art forms are all connected with human stories, and those are the language of the art form, Harper said. 

"[The] foundation of all art form is our humanity,” Harper said. 

Harper has continued to teach dance as an adjunct professor at New York University, Juilliard School and Fordham University. 

As she expanded her art forms, she became more interested in studying acting and applying it to her choreography. Harper said she was getting better responses from the audience once she started teaching her dancers more about acting. 

The audience became more engaged and connected with the performance when the dancers were more focused on the intentions of the piece, she said. 

Harper’s parents and Arthur Mitchell, the co-founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, have heavily influenced her works, she said. Mitchell and her mother recently died, so she thought about them in her recent pieces. 

Harper said she was constantly looking at how she could stay relevant and innovate in the dance world. For Harper, it is about the community involvement and giving back to those who helped her along the way. 

Harper said creating works that uplifted and empowered people through tumultuous times and receiving that community response was what she was striving toward with the Project and her works. 

Contact contributor Julia Muro at

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