You could taste the dust. The heat was a little less than flattening. And somehow you could tell: no air was stirring anywhere within 50 miles of the place.

The combination of the three nearly seemed to change the gravitation. Solemn people, long since grown accustomed to economizing–to the bone–on clothing, food and furnishings, measured out their movements just as carefully beneath the tender mercies of the stillest air and sun.

After they had gone, I still wondered one thing:

How had anyone gotten that much of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on stage–in a work of modern dance?

As it turned out, Dedication, an adaptation of Walker Percy’s timeless photographs and James Agee’s prose on the tenant farmers during the Depression, proved the perfect introduction to choreographer Robin Harris’ work. In it, we clearly saw the artist’s enviable economy of form, reducing a series of images, gestures and lived experiences to their most distilled forms in movement.

Equally evident was Harris’ concerns about the humanity of her characters. Their choreographed interactions with everyday objects–washtubs, kitchen tables, clotheslines, vintage dress–revealed her pursuit of the quotidian, her deep-seated interest in the ordinary lives of people in very different strata of society.

If we call it a dance and leave it at that, we haven’t gotten at its function, or the work it does in the world. But Carol Kyles Finley, a former student–and the present director of the Meredith College dance program–does when she talks about her mentor’s work.

“It’s a portal,” she says. “She uses household objects that you associate with every day. She’s just interested in an everyday in 1925 or 1945; not an everyday we see now, but one we can imagine.”

Both personal and cultural history have provided the impetus for Harris’ work. The typewritten record of an epic canoe ride that her father and a friend took down the Mississippi River while they were Boy Scouts in 1941 was the basis for the 2000 work 30 and 73. The experiences of the Chattanooga Times’ first woman reporter in the 1920s inspired Blanche in 1997. The piquant humor of 2000’s Resort (How I Should Love to Marry) found its genesis in the peculiar mating habits of mid-century women who dreamed of finding husbands at summertime retreats. Cheesy, long-playing 33-1/3 rpm instructional albums from the 1950s that claimed to teach “Swimming Skills Through Dry Land Drills” and looking young forever through “Isometric Facial Exercises” were sent up in a 2001 satire, How To.

“She stays so close to her source material,” Finley observes, when she notes that Harris incorporates original text, vintage clothing and household objects like a claw-foot bathtub in her choreography. The pensive final section of 30 and 73, set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” takes place entirely inside a canoe at center stage–one that’s been filled with water.

An uncanny sense of authenticity is only added to by onstage movement taken from the activities and poses in old photographs. “In ballet or pretty traditional modern dance,” Finley says, “you take what are called connector steps. Robin, to get from one place to the next, used movement [in 30 and 73] coming from rowing, gestures suggested by the Boy Scout salute or looking over the horizon with your hand to your forehead. Every movement in her dance is coming from her source material in some way.”

Small wonder then that Harris’ work and her N.C. State University Dance Company has been honored regularly over the past decade. A showing last month of a section from her enigmatic new work, Book of Dreams, at Kennedy Center marked N.C. State’s sixth appearance in the last seven American College Dance Festivals. Their previous trip to the biennial conference in 2002 became the subject of a story on Public Radio International’s Studio 360. Harris’ work has toured the state in the North Carolina Dance Festival and headlined the Southeast Women’s Studies Conference.

The achievements are all the more significant given that N.C. State offers no degree in dance. For 18 years, Harris has run a one-woman show, as the director–and sole faculty member–of the university’s dance program. After years of professional recognition, her students regularly achieve distinction on a national level in their craft. They just can’t get a degree that reflects that fact at N.C. State.

The circumstance becomes even odder when considering how many engineering, design and math majors leave N.C. State to dance. For, arguably, an arts program should be judged not only by its works but by the achievements of its students as well. A brief look around the region indicates Harris’ contributions beyond her works on stage.

Beth Wright, a student in the 1990s, now runs the dance program at Peace College. As noted above, Finley helms the program at Meredith. Jackie White teaches in Charlotte and serves on the executive committee of the North Carolina Dance Alliance. Recent graduate Lindsey Greene choreographs in the area as a founding member of Five Chick Posse. Elsewhere, Mair Culbreth dances in companies in California while pursuing her graduate degree in kinesiology.

It’s safe to say that none of them came to N.C. State to dance. Something happened along the way.

After a high-school injury, Finley thought she would never dance again. During the year she applied for Design school, she took Modern I. “I had no expectations that that class would propel me into anything else,” Finley recalls. But after seeing her student’s beginning studies in technique class, Harris encouraged Finley to take a class in composition, and then join the dance company. “Then she encouraged me to choreograph,” Finley remembers. “The first piece was a really bad group piece,” she chuckles.

The second one won Dance Magazine’s award for best student choreography that year at the American College Dance Festival. Finley still cites Harris as her most influential teacher. “I’ve never wanted to copy her work. If I want to copy anything it’s her commitment to an idea and her commitment to work until she gets there. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t compromise. When it comes to realizing her vision she doesn’t settle for less, and that sticks with me.”

Choreographer/dancer Megan Marvel describes what it’s like on the inside of Harris’ works. “Being in the work is an emotional rollercoaster,” she says, “because in every rehearsal, every run you have to become those characters–and those characters become a part of us. You’re forced to really learn about yourself in the process of doing any of her work.

“And as a dancer, I guess that’s what’s so rewarding,” Marvel says. “That’s what makes me want to stay and work with her as long as I can.”

“She’s influenced me more than anyone else as a choreographer,” says White. “I look at small details, pedestrian qualities, everyday activities, and try to find the humor underneath it.”

After the year-long creation process for Book of Dreams, which included study with noted regional psychologist Lucy Daniels, Harris is taking the summer off. Future plans include a tour of her solos performed by Marvel–and the first, faint stirrings from possible sources for new dances: bellwethers both for a woman who regularly moves audiences and students with her work. EndBlock