Jillian Harris' dance career has taken her across the country and to international events, but tonight it will bring her home to Columbia, where she first learned to love movement and music.
As a principal dancer with the Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, Harris will perform contemporary dance pieces as part of a seven-member company at the Jim Rouse Theater.
The performance is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which continues through June 24 with music, theater, comedy and dance performances at several Columbia venues.
Coming back for the festival is "a very special treat," said Harris, a 1993 graduate of Oakland Mills High School. "It's going to be a homecoming. I'm very excited to see everyone."
She also said she is excited to introduce a new audience to the Kun-Yang Lin company's unique approach to contemporary dance.
The company was formed in New York in 2002 and is now based in Philadelphia. Kun-Yang Lin is a Taiwan native who was a well-known choreographer who came to the United States in 1994 to study modern dance with several groups, including the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Lin now teaches dance at Temple University and choreographs works for his company that combine his contemporary training with his interest in Asian art forms such as tai chi, calligraphy, martial arts and traditional Chinese dance.
Watching the troupe, "You get a very strong sense of [Lin's] background and who he is," Harris said.
She explained the company's style is "very dynamic movement and very articulate. It is extremely precise with gestures and the use of feet and hands."
While the dances do not overtly tell stories, Lin says they are spiritual in nature, drawing inspiration from his life and his experiences.
One, called "Moon Dance," was inspired by a painting of a crane in the moonlight. "Dedication" was created in honor of Lin's father and others who have died.
In Columbia, Harris will be performing the premiere of Lin's solo work, "Moment," which examines the many stages of life.
Lin said one thing that makes his company different is that he employs dancers he has known for a long time instead of holding auditions.
"They have to have passion," he said. "They have to love what they do. ... We are a group of serious artists. It's art, it's also our life."
He added that, while his life is reflected through his role as the choreographer, the dancers "will bring their own life experience into what I see or what my experience [is]."
Harris, 30, said she met Lin when the two were graduate students at New York University in 2001.
Harris, whose grandparents lived in Clarksville, grew up in Oakland Mills and studied dance with Marilyn Byers at Dance Dimensions.
Harris said she was into athletics as a child but was also attracted to dance. She trained for several years to be an Olympic synchronized swimmer, but the team moved to a new training location when she was in middle school and Harris decided to focus on dance.
Earning an award at the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts competition as a teenager "solidified my commitment to be a dancer," she said.
She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Utah and then toured for a couple of years with a company based in Salt Lake City.
She returned to Columbia in 1999 and spent two seasons as assistant director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts before she started school in New York.
Harris currently teaches at Queens College, which is part of the City University of New York. She trains students in dance and teaches yoga.
To be a dancer, she said, "you have to be willing to do a lot of jobs. It's not a nine-to-five life. But it's much more exciting and a lot more variety if you can handle that."
Although Harris' mother gave the company's information to the festival, Executive Director Nichole Hickey said a video of a performance sealed the deal.
"We were taken, really taken, with the pieces that Kun-Yang Lin has choreographed, how uniquely he has married the two cultures, if you will, into something entirely new and fresh."
She added: "It's all so serendipitous to bring one of Columbia's own, the festival's own, back, but also to fulfill our mission by presenting up and coming emerging artists."
Harris said the work should appeal to all audiences.
"It opens up a whole other world view to you," she said.
The Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers perform at 8 p.m. tonight. Tickets and information for all festival events: 410-715-3089 orwww.columbiafestival.org.