THE DANCE ENTHUSIAST ASKS: Maleek Washington, Eriko Iisaku & Sam Pratt On Special Relationships in Dance
The Artists Weigh In On Moving Visions Editor Francesca Harper & The Kinship in Artistry
Whether student, collaborator or member of The Francesca Harper Project, Maleek Washington, Eriko Iisaku and Sam Asa Pratt found themselves touched by Francesca Harper at some point or other in their personal and artistic lives.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS:
MALEEK WASHINGTON is a native New Yorker from the Bronx. He began his studies at Harlem School of The Arts, Broadway Dance Center and LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts. He received a full scholarship to continue his education at The Boston Conservatory. He danced for CityDance Ensemble (Washington DC), where he worked with Paul Taylor, Kate Weare, and Alex Neoral. He's performed in over 10 countries worldwide and performed at national locations including The White House, the John F. Kennedy Center and Jacob's Pillow. He collaborated with McArthur Genius awardee, Kyle Abraham, and his company Abraham.in.Motion (A.I.M.) for four seasons. Presently, he is the first African American male performing in the immersive show Sleep No More. He is on faculty at the Joffrey Ballet School's Jazz and Contemporary program, Broadway Dance Center and Gibney Dance, as well as being a guest teacher at Peridance, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and CityDance Conservatory (Bethesda, MD). Maleek joined the Francesca Harper Project in 2017.
ERIKO IISAKU began her dance training with her mother, Yoshimi Iisaku. In 2006, she moved to New York and entered The Ailey School as a Fellowship student for four years. She has trained at Jacob's Pillow Contemporary Tradition and ADF (American Dance Festival). Eriko has had the opportunity to perform works choreographed by Francesca Harper , Sonia Dawkins, Iquiail Shaheed, Edger Zendejas, Helen Pickett, and appeared in Alvin Ailey's Memoria at New York City center in 2007-2009. She has performed with Dallas Black Dance Theater, New Ballet Ensemble as a Guest Artist, Eikichi Yazawa ''Still Rockin'' concert tour as a featured dancer, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and International Tanz Gala in Graz Austria. Eriko has served as Rehearsal Director/Company Member of The Francesca Harper Project since 2010.
SAM ASA PRATT was born and raised in New York City. He is the Co-founder and Director of Baye & Asa, a company creating movement art projects. He graduated from Bard College with degrees in Philosophy and Dance and has worked with greats such as Akram Khan Company, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, Abraham in Motion, Kate Weare Company, and The Francesca Harper Project.
Where were you born and where would you consider home?
Sam Asa Pratt: I was born and raised in NYC. I’ll never leave.
Maleek Washington: I was born in the Bronx, NY and consider the whole of New York City to be home. Throughout my life, I have personally and artistically been informed and transformed by the different areas of this diverse, creatively-rich, "go-getter" city.
Eriko Iisaku: I was born in Kyoto, Japan but grew up in Osaka and Tokyo. I lived the first half of my life in Japan and the second half in the U.S., traveling periodically between the two for work as well as to visit my family and friends. I currently reside in New York City but as a person who was born overseas, the path for permanent residency in the U.S. is lengthy and cumbersome, which limits a foreigner’s ability to make life plans and feel free. For these reasons, I often question myself where home is and will be.
What is that one song which you can’t help but dance along to?
Eriko Iisaku: "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor
Maleek Washington: Definitely Frankie Beverly and Maze's "Before I Let Go." It’s my family's favorite song to dance and sing (off key) to when we have gatherings.
Sam Asa Pratt: Charrelle and Alexander O'Neal's "Saturday Love."
Francesca Harper cited each of you as someone whom she's worked with and whose body of work she is excited about. How did your artistic paths cross?
Maleek Washington: It’s so affirming to have Francesca’s vote of confidence as I am a major admirer of her as a person and, of course, as an artist. I first met Francesca when I was a young student at The School of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At the time, her beloved and beautiful mother, Denise Jefferson, was the Director and helped me complete my first audition even though I was not in dance attire (humble beginnings)! Fast forward to 2011: that’s when I formally met Fran as a participant in her class during the early developments of what many of us know as "The Playground," created by Loni Landon and Greg Dolbashian. Her class held special meaning to me thanks to Fran’s creative process, which is experimental, physically and technically demanding, and calls for vulnerability — all the elements I needed to hone in on, as I was just starting to professionally work with Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M. Fran was the divine feminine artistic mentorship needed to push me to the next stage in my practice, and I will forever be grateful for her friendship and mentorship.
Eriko Iisaku: I first saw one of Francesca's pieces when I was a student at The Ailey School. She choreographed her piece called Eroica for a student school performance. The moment I saw her piece, I had an epiphany while sitting in the audience and thought, "This is it." I originally came to NYC pursuing my dream of musical theater and didn't know much about the contemporary dance world. Francesca steered my interest. There is just something about her work — that cannot be described in writing — that drew my heart and attention. I still remember how I was sitting at the edge of my seat while watching her piece. My journey with Francesca started that day.
Sam Asa Pratt: We met performing in Punchdrunk’s New York production of Sleep No More. Francesca has an undeniable magnetism. I learned a lot from watching her perform.
We are celebrating Harper’s dance history and body of work this season. How would you describe her and her oeuvre?
Maleek Washington: Fran is a radical. She is captivating to a T.
Eriko Iisaku: Francesca is a superwoman. A phenomenal performer, director, choreographer, producer, educator, wife and mother. She has so many roles in her life and they all represent herself, but even before all these, she is a very authentic and genuine human being, who is not afraid to express her emotions.
Sam Asa Pratt: As a performer, Francesca’s skill and grace is obvious, and she’s danced with some legendary choreographers and companies. She’s also a courageous and incredibly generous collaborator, often a part of large productions that include different artistic disciplines.
Eriko Iisaku: Moreover, she listens, nurtures and cares for others.
Sam Asa Pratt: Her warmth is palpable, and it brings out the best in the people she works with. She’s able to assert her vision while remaining open to other strong voices in the room. Her empathy and openness is a quality I aspire to emulate.
Eriko Iisaku: Fran has always given me, and other artists, the freedom to make our own choices in expressing ourselves to ultimately transmit our personal message to the audience. As a result, the people who get to experience Fran’s work are able to decipher the real meaning and relate on a human level.
She cherishes each and every artist’s individual story and feelings. Sometimes, we would sit in the studio talking and listening to each other for hours without even dancing. There were some uncomfortable and intense moments, tears, conflict and laughter during those conversations, and I believe that this process is very important for herself and her artists to bring authenticity into the movement so that the audience is able to connect with us on a deeper level.
Harper seems to have a gift for inspiring and uplifting others. On this note, where does the theme of collaboration stand in your own world?
Eriko Iisaku: I firmly believe that dancing is all about transmitting and receiving messages and emotions. From being brought up by a dancer mother to my schooling at Alvin Ailey, I've been affected and inspired by many outstanding artists throughout my life. One of my main goals is to uplift and to inspire my peers and aspiring artists through my work and teaching. There is a strong connection in the dance network, which became even stronger during the pandemic. The art community is outstanding and I consider myself privileged to be a part of it.
Sam Asa Pratt: I started Baye & Asa with my longtime collaborator Amadi Washington. We’ve been creating movement art projects together for the past seven years, and we’ve known each other since first grade. Our brotherhood is essential to my creative capacity and foundational to my relationship with dance.
What are you currently working on? Sam, I saw something about Hothouse on your website, which gave me the chills — in a good way!
Sam Asa Pratt: HotHouse is the new Baye & Asa project. It was developed in response to the pandemic, and the way our country’s failed response to Covid-19 has unmasked the greater systemic failures of America. Pioneer Works in Red Hook BK has signed on as a presenting partner. More coming soon!
Maleek Washington: I just finished a 5-week residency with Camille A. Brown. It was refreshing to be with my dance family after not dancing with them for a year. I'm also choreographing and creating for multiple organizations like National Dance Institute and Dance Now NYC.
Eriko Iisaku: I am working on some projects with ACE Dance Concept, a contemporary dance and film company based in New York City and Paris, founded in 2017 by Scott Schneider, Łukasz Zięba, myself and Willy Laury, who serves as the Artistic Director. We recently held an international virtual dance intensive called ''Virtual Capsule'' featuring Grammy winning choreographer Ebony Williams. Students had the opportunity to train and contribute to the creative process of a film, which will premiere on ACE Space, a unique streaming platform created to share our work during this challenging period.