INSIDE: Paige Fraser’s “ASCENSION” at Northwestern University’s Danceworks 2019
… she has made from that accomplishment the foundation for other, even more inspiring accomplishments …
Although nobody talks about it very much, courage is an important part of dance. It takes courage to go on stage and perform of course, but it also takes courage to keep facing the reality of imperfection, a reality that in some ways becomes more vivid the more you find the courage to improve. Then there are even more intimidating, more difficult challenges, some of them very frightening, and that’s when you need courage just to keep going.
Paige Fraser has always done that and more. When she was awarded a Princess Grace Award, when she was named by Dance Magazine to their prestigious 25 to Watch, and all of the other times that her work has been so widely admired, many people might have thought that it was because of her exceptional gifts as a performer, and of course it was. But the only reason anyone ever got to see Paige Fraser’s always-impressive performances is because she kept going, even when anyone with less courage might have given up. At the age of twelve she was diagnosed with Scoliosis, yet she not only kept going, it’s hard to tell if she ever even slowed down. She not only went on to create an extraordinary career as a dancer, she has made from that accomplishment the foundation for other, even more inspiring accomplishments. One of these is The Paige Fraser Foundation, the organization that she founded to help others to have the opportunity — and to find the courage — not just to keep going, but to excel as she has.
Fraser has begun to turn more of her attention to choreography, and her latest work is a twenty-five minute piece entitled ASCENSION for Northwestern University. It will be performed as part of Danceworks 2019 at the Josephine Louis Theater, March 1-10., in a program that also includes works by Jeff Hancock, J’Sun Howard, and Joel Valentin-Martinez. We wanted to hear more from Paige about her work as a choreographer, and especially about ASCENSION, so we asked her to give us an idea of what we’ll see in March at Northwestern’s Josephine Louis Theater. Here’s what she told us:
Sometimes you won’t feel ready or prepared, but it’s good to say yes and it’s good to try.
Johnny Nevin: You’re dance career has already included a lot of different artistic experiences, and your work as a performer has been widely admired. How did the idea of choreographing find its way into your life?
Paige Fraser: As a young child my main goal was to become a professional dancer. I began dancing at the age of four and instantly fell in love with Ballet and the focus it required. Many years later I am grateful to say I have had the career I dreamt of as a child … and I’m not done yet. To be honest my introduction into choreographing happened very naturally. I received my first opportunity to choreograph at Houston Academy of Dance in the summer of 2015. I remember I was slightly nervous because I had never choreographed before aside from the composition class I took while studying at Fordham University. Working with these young and talented dancers was so much fun. It showed me that I had a creative side aside from just being a dancer/performer. I enjoyed creating and using my life experiences and the experiences of others as inspiration. I loved witnessing the moment when the dancers let go and become vulnerable to the work.
Over the past few years I have continued to choreograph smaller works. Every season at Visceral we present WITHIN which is a showcase of choreography by the dancers of the company. This has been a wonderful opportunity to dig deeper and work on my voice and vision as a creator. In 2017 I was given the opportunity to choreograph a new work that would be presented at Links Hall in Chicago. This was my first big commission. It would be a part of a larger show entitled “Performing Home” produced by Cynthia Bond. After our first meeting I questioned myself and if I was ready to participate in such a big project. It is always scary doing something that is outside of your comfort zone, but I pushed past that and got to work. Sometimes you won’t feel ready or prepared, but it’s good to say yes and it’s good to try. This opportunity is what showcased my work to Joel Martin, the director of the dance department at Northwestern University.
I wanted it to be more than just dance but rooted in blood memories from my grandparents and parents.
Narrative is a big driving force in my choreography. The main inspiration for my work was from a Stuart Hall exhibit I saw at the MoMa. It vividly captured his migration from Jamaica to the UK. I loved the way they presented his work on a projection separated into three sections. From this I created a trio entitled (re)location. It covered the journey of my ancestors from Africa to Jamaica and finally America. I cast my friends Michelle Reid and Elysia Banks which made the process flow naturally. I wanted it to be more than just dance but rooted in blood memories from my grandparents and parents. It was very important that I remained genuine to my family’s life experiences as well as mine. I often reflect on being a dancer, female of color, and a Scoliosis advocate in my work. It is what makes me unique. We all have a story to share!
I love the energy his music brings out of me as a choreographer as well as the dancers.
Johnny: Can you tell us about ASCENSION, the work that you’re creating for Northwestern University? You’ve said that the idea was first inspired by a portrait that you saw in a museum in L.A. — how did the idea that you first imagined when you saw that portrait evolve into the movement design and performance that is now ASCENSION? What was it like working with the dancers at Northwestern as you developed the project with them?
Paige: ASCENSION is my first commission on a university and I am very excited. This work is inspired by Robert Pruitt’s art exhibit in LA (https://www.artsy.net/artwork/robert-pruitt-ascension). I was captivated by a particular portrait entitled Ascension (2017) that he had drawn out of charcoal, Conte crayon, and coffee on paper. It was very simple; a woman staring upward wearing a tank top designed with flying saucers. I was drawn in to the hope in her eyes. To me she looked ready to fly into the future and leave the past behind her.
A little backstory … I began developing ASCENSION as a 3 minute solo which I presented in WITHIN at Visceral. This solo was set on a woman (Michelle Reid). I wanted to play with the idea of a woman going to the moon first….like how badass that would be? I did further research on the Moon and it’s phases. I also gathered inspiration from footage of Neil Armstrong bouncing on the Moon and used that as movement inspiration. Michelle and I played with several phrases that had clear texture changes and buoyancy. I wanted it be rich and fluid. The music for this solo “Moonlight” is an original composition by NY born/Chicago based composer Darryl Joseph Hoffman. He used the dispatch recording from the video of Neil Armstrong on the moon and layered it with an electronic beat and hip hop vibe. Having this solo as a base line was very helpful for when I began working at Northwestern. I deconstructed it and built more phrases that evolved into the 6 other sections, totaling a 25 minute piece!
I honestly love how the piece has evolved this far and I look forward to seeing it continue to grow from now until the show. I love working with the next generation of dancers.
ASCENSION shows how one person journeys from the darkness to light. One section entitled “Analog” represents how individuals must respond to the changes that life throws at them. It is danced to an original song by Hoffman. I love the energy his music brings out of me as a choreographer as well as the dancers. It is very driving and has a house-like vibe. The piece shifts in energy during a softer and vulnerable duet to “This Bitter Earth / On the Nature of Daylight” by Dinah Washington and Max Richter.
I honestly love how the piece has evolved this far and I look forward to seeing it continue to grow from now until the show. I love working with the next generation of dancers. It is really surreal to be here especially when I think back to being a dancer in college creating dances in comp class. Working with college students really pushes me because I have had to think much deeper about what I want the work to say and how to communicate that to them. I have been trying my best to coach them throughout the process because they are young and have so much deeper to dig than they even know yet. My cast of 9 ranges from Freshmen to Seniors which I love. Some of them are so fresh and then some are dancers preparing to transition to the professional world. It really is beautiful to see them get to know each other and open up to me. I am really looking forward to sitting back and watching the magic on opening night.
Paige Fraser’s ASCENSION will be performed Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 1-3, and Thursday through Sunday, March 7-10 (Sunday shows are a 2pm, all other performances at 7:30pm) at Danceworks 2019 at Northwestern University’s Josephine Louis Theater (20 Arts Circle Drive
Evanston 60208). Danceworks 2019, which features new works by Paige Fraser, Jeff Hancock, J’Sun Howard, and Joel Valentin-Martinez. On Thursday, March 1 there will also be a Question and Answer session with the choreographers. Tickets are available online from Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.