For a city its size, Portland has a remarkably active dance scene that fills the city’s dance card with everything from ballet concerts of “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker” to studio productions of the freshest and grittiest contemporary work by local choreographers. If a theme runs through all of this movement, it’s innovation — Portland dance has a restless, inventive spirit that welcomes collaborations with other art forms and often spills beyond the generally accepted boundaries of “dance.”
The primary presenter of dance artists from outside the city is White Bird, which has brought mostly modern dance to the city since incorporating in 1997. White Bird’s tastes generally run to the more experimental and contemporary part of the dance spectrum, especially in its Uncaged programs at Lincoln Hall at Portland State University, but even its larger shows at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall often feature advanced European and Asian choreographers, alongside their American peers.
The largest ballet company in the city is Oregon Ballet Theatre, which has managed to operate at a quality level far above its budget, thanks to its artistic directors James Canfield and Christopher Stowell, since its emergence in 1989 from a merger of two smaller companies. Under Stowell, the company focused on sharpening its Balanchine core and adding lots of neo-classical and story ballets to its repertoire. Its new artistic director Kevin Irving has worked with many of the most interesting dance choreographers in the world and is expected to bring a more modern feel to the company.
Choreographer Sarah Slipper founded Northwest Dance Project in 2004 with the idea of developing a core of athletic dancers flexible and creative enough to work with a variety of choreographers on brand new work, usually ballet-based but contemporary in look. That’s exactly what she’s done as the company has bent itself around dozens of new dances made by choreographers from around the world, attacking each with enthusiasm and skill.
BodyVox leans to the more modern part of the dance world, and its work has a theatrical often humorous side, if not downright antic. Founders Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland bring the acrobatics of their work with Pilobolus, Momix and Iso to BodyVox, and they’ve developed a company of dancers able to meet the movement demands without neglecting the connection to the audience.
Portland has several companies that have acrobatic or aerial tendencies (Pendulum Aerial Arts, A-WOL Dance Collective, Polaris Dance), each with a different emphasis. And two venerable companies, Do Jump! and Imago, aim their acrobatic theatrics at the younger set.
The center for new modern dance in the city is Conduit, a dance studio that regularly incubates new work and new companies and then shows them in its intimate downtown space. Just about all of the city’s important modern dance-makers have worked at Conduit one time or another, led by Tere Mathern, Gregg Bielemeier, Linda K. Johnson, and Minh Tran.
And in Southeast Portland, Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest plays a similar role, gathering new dancers and choreographers and combining with experienced hands — such as Austin herself.