Harper Watters, the first queer Black First Soloist for the Houston Ballet and a TikTok starlet who is redefining ballet’s social media presence, pays homage to his dancer ancestors this Black History Month. Last year, he recreated iconic poses from transgender dancer Ashton Edwards, Matthew Rushing, "Godfather of Vogue'' Willi Ninja and Bill T. Jones. This February, he's teamed up with photographer Maxwell Poth to reimagine photographer Jack Mitchell's legendary shots of the Dance Theatre of Harlem from the '70s and '80s.
Watters discovered Mitchell’s photographs as he explored the deep waters of the internet's annals of Black dancers, searching for inspiration for his annual BHM tribute series. “I want this to be a love letter and thank you note to the dancers in [Jack Mitchell’s photographs] because I stand on their shoulders,” Watters tells PAPER. Collaborating with photographer Maxwell Poth, the two recreated some of Mitchell’s most iconic works in a powerful portrait series.
Below, witness the side-by-side recreations made by Poth and Watters as well as a PAPER behind-the-scenes chat with Watters about his self-reflective journey into the archives to honor Black dancers.
How did you and Maxwell link up for this project?
I messaged him and said: “PLEASE HELP MY VISION COME TO LIFE!" Without any hesitation, he was on board. I’m lucky to know Maxwell, beyond him being an incredible photographer, as a friend. One who I met many years ago, galavanting around WeHo. It’s always fun to be able to make art with creatives, but when they’re your friends it’s even more special.
Why did you think Maxwell would be the right photographer for this?
Maxwell has such an incredible eye and talent for capturing the body and capturing the body in movement. His work never feels one-dimensional. There is a calmness, attention to detail, and simplicity throughout his work that always makes for a strikingly beautiful finished project. He also is dedicated to highlighting queer people and their stories. So his artistic voice and commitment to working with marginalized subjects made him an obvious choice.
What drew you to Jack Mitchell’s photos for this year's edition?
I discovered the work of Jack Mitchell while researching for a previous series I did on IG Reels for Black History Month. The series involved me dancing into the images of black dancers who I work with or who inspired me along my journey. This year I wanted to challenge myself to dig deeper and discover more artists who I knew less about but deserved to have their flowers. This led me to Jack Mitchell and his series of photographs for the Dance Theater of Harlem. Like Maxwell, his work captured the physicality of the male dancers so beautifully. They were so regal and stoic, I was blown away by the poses Jack was able to capture. There is this indescribable feeling that happens in dance when you just feel compelled to move, whether it be the music, the choreography or your partner. I felt that with Jack's photographs and knew I wanted to recreate them and learn more about the dancers in the images.
Did you face any challenges with this shoot, either in conception or in execution?
I think the only challenge I faced was realizing how talented the Dance Theater of Harlem dancers were, because despite making the poses look so effortless, they were in fact super challenging. Maxwell was able to recreate the lighting so well, and I was impressed with how he could almost sculpt me into positions by correcting the angles of my limbs to replicate the images perfectly. My hope was to carry their energy through Maxwell's eyes and my body.
What did you hope to highlight in recreating these photos?
I want this to be a love letter and thank you note to the dancers in the original images because I stand on their shoulders, they paved the way for me to be able to dance the way I am today. I wanted to shed light on their careers and their accolades. I had a few dancers to look up to when I was starting out, but I truly lacked the visibility and knowledge of dancers like me, which forced me to believe I wasn’t meant to be a dancer. These dancers are my fuel to keep on dancing and pushing myself to be better.
What is the through-line between your work and the Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers' work?
Black dancers are beautiful. Black dancers are powerful. Black dancers matter.
Photo by Maxwell Poth