She tried, God knows she tried to look into a career that guaranteed financial stability. But Kellie Harmon is an artist – and artists, at the end of the day, don’t really have a choice.
“I feel like, at this point, I have to create or I’m just not going to be a happy soul,” she says. “I create to stimulate others’ minds, and to stimulate my mind. There’s just no way I couldn’t do it.”
Harmon is the founder and artistic director of RogueDance, a St. Petersburg-based contemporary modern dance company. She holds a BFA in Modern Dance from the University of South Florida and is a founding member of the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance. As such, she performs in the group’s always-anticipated annual stage production, Beacon.
She’s tall, nearly 5-foot-7, and her dancing is a lyrical combination of athleticism, expression and grace.
“Sometimes,” she reflects, “words don’t do as much as the body does. I don’t know the exact percentage, but you can get more out of a conversation with body language than you can with words. And I think that’s a direct reflection of dance. I mean, why talk anyways if I can talk to you through movement?”
This weekend, as part of the month-long Dance Hall Festival at thestudio@620, Rogue will premiere a new work, Triggered: An Evening With a Brain. There are performances Saturday evening (Sept. 21) and Sunday afternoon.
Here’s the pitch: “There’s a lot going on right now, and it’s hard to balance everything with technology at the door, politically you have to tiptoe around everything, gun control … you have so much information hitting you at all times. It’s hard to balance, especially with a creative, emotional mind. Sometimes you just want to snap.”
Welcome to Triggered – a lyrical representation of the snap.
“I sat down with the dancers, and we basically free-wrote about anything and everything that we could think of,” Harmon explains. “Things that were really bothering them. And it went in every direction. There was a lot of time spent in the studio where we were just writing and having conversations about what we felt very strongly about.”
Next, the emotions were translated, through exploration, into movement. “Then each dancer develops a character that the audience will follow throughout it. And the character is a reflection of what they felt super strongly about.” The piece traverses the full range of human emotion.
Along with Harmon, the dancers are Heidi Brewer, Carleigh Gee, Sharon Ranieri McCamam, Samantha Miller and Jessica Obiedzinski.
“It’s very much an experience,” Harmon enthuses. “I want to make you laugh, I want to make you cry. I want to make you feel, essentially.
“It’ll be a wild ride, that’s for sure.”
She was born and raised in horse ‘n’ cattle country, Ocala, Florida, and took her first dance lessons as a tot. By her teens, she was all about jazz dance. “I stopped for one year and I joined the golf team,” Harmon laughs. “Because my dad said that business was done on the golf course. But I would always get in trouble for dancing on the course – so I guess I had to go back.”
She enrolled at Santa Fe College in nearby Gainesville, putting dance on the back burner while she planned on a career in pharmaceutical sales.
That didn’t work out, either. “One day I hit my head on the dance floor, really hard, one late night, and I swear the next day I woke up and said ‘I’m going to be a dance major!’ And I applied to USF the next day.”
At the University of South Florida, she studied under Michael Foley, the program’s instigator and one of the most-admired choreographers in Florida’s halls of artistic academia. “I grew up in competition,” Harmon says. “I didn’t know what theater dance was until college.”
At her first American College Dance Festival, she discovered the wide-ranging expressive work of Foley’s contemporaries, teachers from other Florida universities, “and I just remember being floored. Those were the choreographers that spoke to my soul. I actually felt it, I guess, for the first time, versus just executing a move.”
After four years and an intense study period in Paris, Harmon and her newly-minted degree took off for New York City and the world of Big Time Dance.
She hated the city, and came into precious few opportunities to dance. She waitressed and tended bar. After two years of that, she came back to Florida for good.
Almost immediately, Harmon met fellow dance explorer Helen Hansen French, who’d recently returned to her hometown. They were among the small group that founded the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance (Foley, her USF mentor, was also in that number).
“Ultimately,” Harmon explains. “I would like for St. Pete to become a hub for professional dance. I would love that. I see so many dancers march up to New York, or two the west coast, to pursue dance.
“It’s becoming a trend now in the dance community to kind of set up shop wherever you want – there’s a great scene in Seattle, one in Nashville, the Northeast has always had it going on. And down south we have some companies, but I think maybe it’ll take a festival or something that pulls everyone south.”
The audience, she believes, is already here. Transplants and retirees from the Northeast, or the Midwest, are conditioned (in a good way) to experience and enjoy modern dance. “It’s a slow build,” she says. “We all have to be patient for it.”
She thinks the younger generation – hers – has preconceived ideas about what dance is. “I’m not onstage in a tutu – although there’s nothing wrong with that – and it’s not So You Think You Can Dance …”
Kellie Harmon laughs. “Although there’s a lot of talent in that as well.”
Details and tickets here.