Encore Atlanta - December 2004, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

On Her Toes

by Mark Gresham

Ask Lee Harper about her creative history, and the dancer-choreographer answers in images as much as words. They abound in photos, programs, and news clippings — on the walls of her studio office, in scrapbooks, on videotape. It is a history of image and movement crowned by her new book, Dancing Without Walls, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of her professional troupe, Lee Harper & Dancers.

Harper formed her dance company in Atlanta in the spring of 1980, but her connection with the city began some five years earlier. Becausse she had danced in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass at the Kennedy Center, Harper was sought out by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Northside School of the Arts to choreograph their 1975 production of the work.

Still, choreographing Mass seemed a daunting challenge to Harper, and she wondered whether she svas up to it. She credits her father with the decisive encouragement. "He said, 'Actually, you can do that. Why don't you try it? What do you have to lose?'" recalls Harper, adding, "If you don't take risks, sometimes, you don't grow. I'm really glad [I did], and it changed my life."

As a result, Harper was offered a job as head of the dance department at the Northside School. She left her job as an artist in residence at Appalachian State University, moved to Atlanta to stay, and hasn't looked hack.

Although Lee Harper & Dancers ceased mounting independent productions and regional tours in 1995, Harper has continued to work with local organizations such as the Atlanta Opera, Atlanta Lyric Theatre, and, most of all, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The extensive collaborative work, liturgical performances, and more than 200 students — not to mention her family — keep her so busy she is obliged to severely limit the projects she can take on. Nevertheless, in an era where arts funding is less plentiful than in the past and many dancers are not working, Harper says, "I'm so thankful to be able to collaborate."

Although she fondly remembers her work with Robert Shaw, whom she viewed as a father figure, Harper's longest creative partnership has been with ASO staff conductor Jere Flint. She has enjoyed working with Flint since 1978 in the orchestra's many family and educational concerts such as "Symphony Street," and the annual "Halloween" and "Kids' Holiday" programs. The walls of her office and her scrapbooks tell the story well. "Jere and I think up programs together," she says." We try to rotate [repertoire], and we try to do something new. That's why we work so well together."

Mark Gresham is a composer, award-winning music journalist, and native Atlantan.

[First published in the December 2004 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra edition of Encore Atlanta, ©2005. Used here by permission of Encore Atlanta.]