Professor explores trauma with mud, dance

“Mud: Bodies of History,” a dance professor’s film, is set in Colombia.

Dance professor Jillian Harris performs new techniques in interpretive dance in her Modern Technique dance class in Pearson Hall on Thursday for her upcoming film project. BRIAN TOM FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

In 2015, Jillian Harris saw a YouTube video of a man rolling around in a mud pool in Eastern Europe. She was transfixed.

“I began to think of mud and what mud represents metaphorically to us,” said Harris, a dance professor. “The phrase is sometimes used, ‘I feel stuck in the mud,’ and I’ve seen that image used a lot, particularly among people I know who’ve experienced depression or some sort of traumatic event. They have this feeling that they’re being held back, being pulled down.”

Harris is producing “Mud: Bodies of History,” a dance film set in Cartagena, Colombia. The film will feature three performers submerged in mud, and their stories of trauma will be revealed to the audience through dance, Harris said.

Harris’ film will take about four years to complete. She said she intends to enter it in film festivals and post it online when it’s done.

When the performers are in the mud, Harris plans to use imagery created by the interactive media tool Z Vector, which she previously used in 2015 for “Invasion,” a dance installation about reflecting on the past and living in the present.

Z Vector is a visualization tool commonly used at music festivals that turns movement and sound into three-dimensional visuals with depth-sensor cameras, Harris said. These cameras, like the Microsoft Kinect, project light to detect how far away an object is, then integrate that data to create 3-D images.  On stage, when Z Vector is used, dancers’ movements are projected on a screen behind the performers.

Harris said she loves the tool because it mixes reality with the virtual world.

“It’s real bodies in real time and space, interacting with captured bodies from the past,” she said.

Harris is also considering using Eko, an interactive video tool that allows viewers to select the narrative characters to follow by clicking on certain pop-ups within a video.

“It’s creating videos that in essence feel like interactive games,” Harris said.

She began thinking about “Mud” after she finished working on “Red Earth Calling” in 2015, a film set in Utah’s Arches National Park that highlighted the dancers’ connection to the natural landscape. It won 17 awards at exhibits like the Philadelphia Screendance Festival.

Harris said her goal is to reconnect people to natural landscapes through her films. Her work is designed to contradict the abundance of videos shot in urban settings, she said.

“In this day and age, because of technology and our sedentary lifestyle, we have become quite disconnected to our natural landscapes,” Harris said.

Chris Farrell, Harris’ husband and dance instructor, will write the original score for “Mud,” which he also did for “Red Earth Calling” and “Invasion.” Farrell founded Rit Mo Collective, a Philadelphia-based group that plays a mix of world, contemporary jazz, Americana, funk and classical Indian music.

Farrell and Harris will visit Colombia in May to see the film’s set. Farrell said he will keep a journal and record sounds — like people walking on the streets, cars and church bells — while abroad to help determine the best music for the film.

“Once I step into the mud pool, I’ll have a strong feeling of what that pool’s voice is,” Farrell said. “I’ll be bringing very simple but effective recording devices to be there and experience it before myself, what I smell, hear and sense when I’m there.”

Harris’ newest film is an extension of her love of dance, which began when she was 10 years old. Since then, she toured nationally and internationally with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, a Utah-based contemporary dance company.

“Part of how I negotiate the world is through movement,” Harris said. “I’m not happy unless I’m dancing, moving expressively.”

Laura Smythe can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.