M.J. Harper’s Art is a Blend of Mediums
September 16, 2022

In melding passions for dance and fashion, Germany-based multimedia artist and dancer M.J. Harper stuns audiences across industries. Having worked with superstars like choreographer Wayne McGregor and designer Grace Wales Bonner, Harper has made a splash in both worlds—and is just getting started. 

Harper’s first serious dive into dance began at JP Taravella High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Harper had been accepted into the school’s musical theater program as a freshman (one of only three to do it at the time.) But during rehearsals for the first musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Harper was kicked out of the show for bad attendance. “For some reason I couldn’t be bothered to go to rehearsals,” Harper says. “My mom was so upset with me, and I realized then how much I truly wanted and needed to be part of the program.” So Harper kicked it into high gear, and the following year was cast in the school’s production of Singing in the Rain.

M.J. Harper, courtesy Callie's Berlin

By the end of high school, Harper was at a loss for what to do next. Harper had struggled with math and was concerned that the GPA would cause trouble with getting into college. Sensing Harper’s concerns, Harper’s mother signed Harper up to audition for the New World School of the Arts, a four-year BFA conservatory program in Miami, Florida. Luckily, Harper was accepted. “I fell in love with dance completely there—I was like a sponge,” Harper says. The school opened Harper’s eyes to the world of modern dance, and Harper discovered legends like Martha Graham, William Forsythe, and Pina Bausch. After four years there, Harper joined Ailey II before eventually landing a spot in McGregor’s performance group (then called Random Dance), where Harper stayed for five years. “Physically, spiritually, mentally, and even racially, I saw myself in Europe,” Harper says. “Even though there weren’t a lot of black bodies there, there was more grace for people of color in the European dance system.”

A hip injury eventually forced Harper to reconsider these dance career goals. “My doctor told me that surgery could do more harm than good, and that I might consider taking time off to find a whole new way of creating for myself,” Harper says. “So I made the tough choice to quit the company.” Convinced dancing would never happen again, Harper moved to Germany and has resided there since. “I made up for time I didn’t get in college, hanging out and discovering myself,” Harper says. But it didn’t take long for Harper to realize the need for money, and the only professional experience Harper had previously was through dance. So, Harper auditioned for an opera house in Berlin, Komische Oper, and got the job. “The first day of the audition we wore heels, and the costumes were massive recreations of ball gowns,” Harper describes. “With this experience I realized my body was fine to dance, so long as it was in an environment where I was safe to move at my own pace and take care of myself.”  Harper soon began creating personal work in Berlin, on Instagram, and in the fashion community with designers like Bonner and Stephano Pilati. In the future, Harper hopes to be a guest artistic director at an opera house. “I would love to bring in my team and shake up the very conservative approach to the opera world,” Harper says. “This is my dream now.”

M.J. Harper, courtesy Callie's Berlin

On how Harper’s dance teachers provided preparation for professional work: “Dancing with a company like Wayne’s was physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. In those moments I was so grateful for the training I’d been given by my dance educators. They taught me how to conduct myself in rehearsal, do my exercises outside of class, and enter a company system—that it’s a family, but you need to have your own space and life beyond it.”

On the best dance counsel Harper’s ever received: “Be your own best teacher. You shouldn’t have to wait for someone to validate your choices. You are in the company because of your artistry, not because of what you can do technically, and you need to make choices that go beyond what a choreographer is thinking.”

On advice for dance teachers in 2022: “Lead with love and not your ego. At the end of the day, your students have to make choices for themselves. A serious, committed dancer does not show up lightly, so take that into consideration when you correct them. Our parents and teachers are also vulnerable—be transparent without being harsh or critical. Be vulnerable and let your students know about the difficult things you have experienced. Hopefully then, you won’t project your feelings onto them, and you won’t pass on trauma and unhealthy behaviors. Finally, seek to learn from the students, just as they learn from you.” 

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