Northwestern’s Danceworks 2019 preview- An interview with choreographer Paige Fraser

Dancer/mentor/choreographer Paige Fraser above the clouds; photo by Omar Z. Robles

Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern will present Danceworks 2019March 1 – 10, 2019 at the Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus. The best of dance at Northwestern University is always on full display each year at the annual Danceworks concert featuring new works in a variety of styles including contemporary, ballet, and jazz. This year’s exciting showcase finds the concepts of ascension, migration, mindfulness and visibility among the themes explored. The annual contemporary dance showcase features world premieres by Chicago dancemakers Paige FraserJ’Sun Howard, and Northwestern University dance faculty Jeffrey Hancock and Joel Valentin-Martinez, who also serves as the production’s artistic director.

J’Sun Howard’s Accidental Bliss is inspired by recent visits to Japan and, according to Howard, “exposure to the concepts of mindfulness, especially toward your fellow neighbor, as well as the ideas of ceremony and counter-ceremony.” Jeffrey Hancock’s Verge looks at visibility and invisibility and the ways it affects identity. Monarch Butterfly Migration, choreographed by Joel Valentín-Martinez, explores the history of migration and its relevance today.  

Paige Fraser’s new work, Ascension was inspired by American artist Robert Pruitt’s portrait of a young woman gazing intently upward, wearing a tank top with flying saucers. “I saw his show in Los Angeles at the California African American Museum and it moved me immensely”, said the dance artist.

“Ascension” by Robert Pruitt, 2017, charcoal and conte on paper; photo on Artsy courtesy of Koplin Del Rio, Seattle

I’ve been spellbound by the sight of Paige Fraser dancing on numerous occasions; she’s a song in muscled human form, the personification of lightness, all fluid motion and sinewed grace. I had the opportunity to interview this artist about her evolution as a dancer, a teacher of dance, an encourager of youth, a choreographer, and the piece she has set on Danceworks.

 Fraser, from The Bronx, New York, began her training at Ballet Atlantic Academy, graduated from the much-lauded Professional Performing Arts High School in New York, won and completed scholarship intensives at American Ballet Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, Jacobs Pillow and Juilliard before attending Dominican University of California with a stint at Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet, ultimately graduating Cum Laude from Fordham.  

She’s appeared (with other dancers) in Beyonce’s “Bow Down” 2013 video tour opener, been seen in V Magazine’s holiday video, and been featured in Dance Magazine as the “top 25 to Watch” for 2017, and in  Dance Teacher, Essence, Lucky, Revolution Dancewear, StreetWise, DancerMusic, Splash, etc., etc.  She was a member of Ailey II for the 2011-2013 season, has been a guest artist with Deeply Rooted Dance Theater and for the Ruth Page Civic Ballet production of The Nutcracker. She’s the featured performer in the 2016 Intel campaign “Experience Amazing” as the RealSense dancer, is the recipient of a Princess Grace Award, Dance Fellowship 2016.

Paige Fraser; photo by Michelle Reid

 Fraser has a spinal condition known as scoliosis, diagnosed in high school. Instead of surgery, she chose to stabilize the problem with a combination of braces that she wore night and day. Incredibly, she continued to take dance class and put in the rigorous practice that led to her outstanding prowess, technique and achievements as a modern dancer firmly rooted in classical ballet. About the ordeal, Fraser says, with stunning simplicity, “It’s not an easy thing to deal with, but dancing healed me. It also made me super-aware of my posture.” Indeed, she is upright as a flame, staggeringly versatile in movement, leaping with assurance, a thoroughly seasoned athlete.

 From 2004-2012, she attended the Alvin Ailey School of Dance, one of the most prestigious in the world. “I attended Professional Performing Arts High School, which allowed me to take the Ailey classes free. Then I got a B.F.A. in Dance from Fordham University, which also offered classes for dance majors at Ailey”. In  2013, Fraser became a founding member of Visceral Dance Chicago with Nick Pupillo, and has been a featured dancer there since its inception. She’s also been able to develop her own choreography in their “Within” program. 

“My first big commission was last year for Cynthia Bond, a performance curator and dramaturg; I crafted a piece called re(location), first creating a trio. The dance was about my family home; I am Jamaican by heritage, and that ethnicity was my overarching theme. I did a lot of research, interviewing relatives. The finished work was also a reflection upon my own migration through life.” Fraser advised me that Northwestern’s Joel Valentin-Martinez was also included in that program, and he contacted her later to work with his students on Danceworks 2019.

Paige Fraser ascending; photo by Gina Uhlmann

She described the piece for Danceworks, “It’s a meditation on transitioning, on focusing upwards with hope and joy and the connection we have to the cosmos. It began with a solo exploration of weightless life, the quality of walking on a gravity-less moon, a lifting off with faith into the darkness, and an emergence again into the light.”

In addition to her dancing and her choreography, the inexhaustible artist has participated in outreach teaching, a hands-on way of paying it forward and enabling others. Last spring, Fraser collaborated with the non-profit Milk Carton on a String to bring dance to underprivileged children in Haiti, teaching daily ballet/modern dance classes and utilizing YouTube videos as well as social media tools to acquaint students with the myriad possibilities in the world of dance.

In a more sustained/permanent effort, The Paige Fraser Foundation, incepted in 2017, is committed to inspiring emerging artists with or without physical challenges to reach their full potential. Their vision includes raising awareness about the arts through performance and presentation; providing a safe space for training and personal and professional development; offering opportunities for youth to practice the arts to achieve their life goals; mentoring and coaching youth as they strive for their goals inside and outside of the arts; developing a network of committed partners, allies, and friends to create community-based arts programs; and using/leveraging technology to expand exposure to the arts. Their values are respect, integrity, ethics, stewardship and commitment to diversity.

Describing the experience of working with the students at Northwestern, Fraser enthused, “I started dancing when I was four years old, and I always loved the discipline and the hard work that dance required from me,” Fraser said. “Seeing the breakthrough in these young dancers is inspiring. My job is to hone that and get something out of them in the process.”  

 

Video shot by Stephen Lewis/Music by Darryl Joseph Hoffman
 

Danceworks 2019 performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. A post-show discussion will follow the March 1 performance.

Tickets are available on the Wirtz Center website and can be purchased by phone at 847-491-7282 or in-person at the Wirtz Center box office, located in the lobby of the Ethel M. Barber Theater, 30 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. 

Box office hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. The box office is closed Sundays and Mondays. 

The Wirtz Center is a member of the Northwestern Arts Circle, which brings together film, humanities, literary arts, music, theater, dance and visual arts.

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