Fine Folks//Creative Callings: Harper Addison, Dancer/Choreographer

Well, it's been a yearlong break from this series, and I thought it was high time we got back to it. You can read more about my intentions here, but the bottom line is this: in the midst of our chaotic world, there are good people living out (or figuring out!) their callings in intentional, innovative, and joy-filled ways. I feel lucky enough to know some of these human beings (and always love being connected to more), and thought it would be great to hear from them in their own words about what moves them to live and create the way they do. Kicking us back into gear is Harper Addison, with whom I share a hometown (ATL) and an alma mater (Davidson). Harper is an incredible dancer and choreographer, and I've enjoyed keeping up with her latest creative venture, The Iteration Project (TIP), "an online community of artists and creatives from around the world joining forces and making work." I talked with Harper about her motivation behind the project, and her thoughts on some of the challenges that artists of all sorts face today.

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This first question is two-fold: 1) When did you first start dancing, and 2) when did you first begin to see yourself as an artist/creator? Did those two things begin simultaneously, or did your identity as an artist develop more over time?

I actually don’t remember when I first started dancing. Both my mom and my aunt were/are dancers and I grew up with it around me all the time. It was just a part of life. If I have a cousin who is 2.5 years older than I am and we grew up dancing together. She obviously started before me, but we were like two peas in a pod. If I had to put an age on it, I think I started officially taking classes around 3 or 4. Baggy pink tights and tiny ballet shoes. Pretty hilarious.

Even though my mother and my aunt both gave my cousin and me opportunities to create and encouraged our home productions, we never called ourselves artists. Even while choreographing at Davidson or in New York, I never called myself a creator or an artist. The term “artist” always felt so heavy and like this thing that was beyond me. It felt like you had to do certain things to claim that title. It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to realize that we are all artists in the truest sense of the word, without any of that extra fluff of what we think an artist should be, should look like, should create.

You explain on The Iteration Project website that it grew out of your move from California back east to Tennessee--in your words, "I found more space and freedom to create but less community to create within." Is this a dichotomy that you expected when you moved, or did it become clearer after you had arrived in Knoxville?

The short answer is, yes, I expected it, but it also changed and became clearer in new ways after I had arrived. I certainly expected the community to be small, and it is (definitely in comparison to San Francisco). But it is also far deeper and more vibrant in ways that I never expected. There’s also an amazing dance company, New Dialect, directed by Banning Bouldin in Nashville. I knew they were there and doing incredible things, so I thought if nothing else happens, at least I’ll have that resource a few hours away. Banning and New Dialect have proven themselves to be invaluable, but the Knoxville community has also been such a wonderful surprise and welcomed me with open arms.

The other part of the equation is that I didn’t realize was how stifled I was in San Francisco. The dance community there is pretty established. As a new member of the community, you feel you have to fit into one of the many camps that already exist. It feels like it’s hard to strike out on your own or blaze new trails because there are existing expectations from other artists and from audience members. Not to mention, it’s just hard to make work. The city is expensive and rental space is expensive. You exert an inordinate amount of energy surviving, which leaves little time and energy left to create. I never realized how much of a toll this was taking. I just thought that maybe I had already made all the good work I was going to make.

When I moved to Knoxville, it suddenly felt like this massive freedom to have no expectations, no established community, to find a small pocket of wonderful dancers that are aching to perform and make work, and to have beautiful rental space for $5/hr instead of $20. I definitely learned a lot about myself in the move: I need a lot of space, both physical and mental, I need to have enough energy to take advantage of the space, and I need to be doing the creative thing every day.

Was TIP the solution that came to you immediately, or did you think of other possibilities to find creative community?

TIP was it. The idea came to me in pieces over a relatively short period of time as I learned about what my own needs were as a creator. Of course, I dove into integrating myself in the existing Knoxville community, but I didn’t want to get isolated or insulated by it. I knew I had to stay connected not only to San Francisco but to all of my other colleagues and graduate school friends around the country.

By the time I had all of the major pieces figured out—a way to stay accountable to creating, a way to go to the studio with a purpose, a way to stay connected to others—the idea seemed so obvious I had to keep asking myself if I was missing something. Like, why wasn’t this happening already?! Had someone already done this? Maybe they have! I just haven’t found it yet.

 Photo: Rick McCullough

Photo: Rick McCullough

I love the weekly prompts you send out; they're so varied and rich. Can you share a little bit about how you've come up with them (if it's not a secret!)?

It’s definitely not a secret, and I’m happy to share! I come up with them on my own from anything that sparks my interest. I personally love using literature and poetry as a prompt, but I try to keep a good mix of literal and abstract ideas so that there’s something for everyone, and everyone is challenged at some point.

When you have the task of creating prompts and you know you have to have one every week, you start looking around for ideas. The more you look, the more you see. The more you see, the more you want to keep looking. Lucky for me, it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s really just the creative process!

How has TIP created more community for you, personally, as a dancer and choreographer? And what have you heard from other participants about how it has impacted or changed their creative habits and community?

In the process of trying to grow TIP, it has forced me to reach out to colleagues and former professors I haven’t spoken to in a while. It has forced me to ask for help and really build a community for myself, so that I can work on building it for all of The Iteration Project's members.

As a member of the community, I love seeing how everyone responds to the prompts each week and finding inspiration in their individual and unique points of view. As a choreographer, you can get stuck in your habits and in your safe space. Getting to see how others move, think, and share, is so refreshing. I’ve enjoyed taking the TIP prompts into rehearsals to explore with dancers, and also using them as a jumping off point in my courses.

Lastly, artists tend to be solo creatures. The focus can be on the individual and how the individual is climbing the ranks in the larger landscape, rather than how they’re supporting it. It takes a village, and I think we forget that in the race to produce work and get our work seen. The Iteration Project is a village, and because of that it’s a continual reminder to reach out, to comment, to like, to support each other. The only other alternative is for TIP to cease to exist.

You say on the site, "The key for creativity is to continue to create, everyday." From my writer's perspective, that means consistently sitting in the chair and plunking words down, even if they're crappy to begin with. I'm curious how you as a dancer and performer approach the daily creative process. I imagine it might have some parallels to the writer's (same time each day? same space? etc.), but I'm wondering if there's anything different about the two, especially since the writer's is often more physically sedentary.

Yes, yes, yes. The same is definitely true for me and for dancers and choreographers in general. You take classes because if you don’t, you regress. You make, because if you don’t, you lose your skills. You create because it’s a practice, and you create whether or not what you make is any good. The simple act of making something is what’s important. By making something consistently, you’ll continually get better.

I personally don’t have a set time and space to make each day. But others certainly do. The physical aspect is interesting, because sometimes you just don’t feel like getting up and moving. But as dancers, that’s what we’re trained to do and so we’re used to doing it whether we feel great or horrible. I think the creative process is largely universal. You get up and you get to work. Some move, some write, but ultimately, you make.

Has TIP changed how you create, or how you work with other dancers as an educator?

It has definitely made me realize that making is not like riding a bike. You can’t just get back on after a 10-year hiatus and ride it like you did when you were a kid. Now that I know that, I know I have to do it consistently to feel comfortable doing it at all. The minute I stop engaging in some creative act each day, I feel like the mountain is too high to climb and I hesitate to start. It’s a bit like Sisyphus, in that you just have to keep doing it. You don’t have a choice. Because if you don’t keep doing it, you’ll likely walk away from it with the likelihood of picking it back up diminishing with each passing day.

A piece about The Iteration Project was featured in DANCE Magazine in April, which to me says that you are definitely addressing a need that creative minds besides your own are seeking. What are some of the conversations you've had with others (in dance or otherwise) about this need?

The conversations I’ve had with others have mostly focused on artists leaving the nation’s large art centers either because the cost of living is so high, or because the competition to survive and thrive is too great. We live in a huge country with a lot of opportunity, but for artists, those opportunities tend to be concentrated in a select few places. We have to change the landscape in order for it to be possible for artists and creators to feel like they can truly live and work in the places that inspire them.

I feel like one of the biggest barriers to changing that aspect of the landscape is isolation. As an individual, if you have to make a choice between being isolated or being in an over-saturated market, being in a known community versus uncharted territory, you’re going to choose the known saturated market. That market at least has the community, even if the resources are stretched thin. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy to strike out on your own and build something from scratch in an unknown market. The hope is that TIP is making that more possible by meeting artists halfway and providing a community, providing inspiration. The only thing they have to do is to take advantage of it and create their own practice.

What would you say to the "closet creatives" out there, who might be nervous about submitting a prompt response, or sharing their creative gifts in general?

I totally get it and I hear you. There are days when it takes all day to muster the confidence to post or to share. But the thing is, once you do it, you realize that there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad. There just is. If you don’t share it, how will we ever know about you? You are a gift to the community. We want to hear your voice. We need to hear your voice because without you the community doesn’t exist. You are crucial.

The beauty about a community is that it takes everyone. It takes young and old, professionals and amateurs. Closet creatives and weekend warriors. We are all better off because of you. So please share.

As you approach the one-year anniversary of TIP prompts, what are you looking forward to in your own creative life and in the life of this community you've built up? 

Yes! Almost to one year of prompts! I’m looking forward to creating more in my own life. I’m working on a full-length evening performance of my work right now. That feels pretty daunting and terrifying, but I know it’s something that I have to do if for no other reason than to learn some very valuable lessons.

As far as the community goes, every time someone new shares something, I do a little dance. I love it. I’m looking forward to the community continuing to grow. To helping people find collaborators. To building our own platform where people can share, and developing some new and exciting accountability and inspiration opportunities for members. There’s a lot in the pipeline right now that I can’t say too much about, but that I’m so excited for. I guess you’ll just have to stay tuned to see what’s next!