On the second day of rehearsals for PDX Contemporary Ballet's new show, two of the company's dancers attempt to pull off an almost acrobatic feat. Kaileigh O'Neill does a sort of slow, backward cartwheel that requires pivoting in midair, while Sari Hoke slides into a deep lunge under the arc of her flip. At the other end of the room, four dancers rehearse just the arm movements from another sequence, pausing to make adjustments to the choreography as they loop through the motions.
But in the lobby of the Southeast Portland studio they've rented, company founder Briley Neugebauer readily admits she doesn't really know where the show is going. "It's kind of like a weird puzzle that I have to figure out in my own head," she says. "I haven't puzzled it all together yet."
Neugebauer doesn't seem particularly concerned by that fact. Uncertainty is essential to her process—Neugebauer assembles her works through meticulous collaboration with her dancers. "They all take a lot of creative liberties with choreography," she says. "I give them tasks, but I don't know how it's going to end up."
At the very least, Converge, the first show of the company's second season, has a premise. The four new works premiering in Converge's first show are all based on literary works by local authors. Two of the dances will be choreographed by Neugebauer herself, the others by Micah Chermak and Alicia Cutaia. "I just kind of randomly paired writer with choreographer and said, 'OK, you guys are going to create something,'" says Neugebauer. "I don't have any idea what they're doing."
But perhaps another reason Neugebauer is so comfortable with uncertainty is that it's built into PDX Contemporary's history. The company formed last year after Moxie, the previous contemporary ballet company of which Neugebauer was a member, basically folded overnight. Less than a month after her arrival, owner Gina Candland left town amid accusations she had invented credentials, and with a wad of dancers' money in unrefunded tuition.
After rising from Moxie's rubble, Neugebauer and her company got started with a highly ambitious first season. They performed in the round, added an extra show to their regular season that promoted female empowerment, shared a bill with an improv troupe and premiered at least one new work at each of their four shows. One show alone debuted five new works.
Still, they faced a challenge common in Portland's dance scene: finding a space in which to perform. "They're very expensive," says Neugebauer. "You can have a theater that seats 20 to 25 people or 200 to 250 people. There's just not kind of that in-between."
Plus, pointe ballet can't be performed on just any surface. You need something with more give than concrete, but hardwood floors don't work either. "It feels like death," says Neugebauer. "Once you put pointe shoes on, you just slide everywhere."
So the dancers spent last season performing their shows wherever they could find space—including all the way out at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham.
For this season, they have a home. All of the shows in their second season will be performed at New Expressive Works' venue in central Southeast. Once again, each show will premiere several new pieces. Fittingly, the company has amped up the collaborative spirit of its choreography. Each showcase will involve another faction of Portland's art scene. The winter show will be based on works by sculptor Michele Collier, who will create new art specifically for the show. For the company's spring show, the dancers will collaborate with the Northwest Piano Trio.
In the rehearsal studio for Converge, rented with the help of crowdfunding, Neugebauer decides to try one of the duets from the top. The soundtrack starts with a poem by Lorelei O'Connor.
"We are a breath through time steadying daily through night's dream flight," reads O'Connor.
With hands on each other's shoulders, O'Neill and Hoke hang their heads like graceful rag dolls and sweep their legs as they sway to the side, looking as if they're just short of falling over. Then, the music kicks in—soft, cheery chimes—and the choreography speeds up into whimsical leaps and dips. At the end of the sequence, Hoke very nearly sticks the cartwheel.
The current plan is for that sequence to open the show. But Neugebauer emphasizes that dancer input between now and November could lead Converge just about anywhere.
"It's easy for me to get stuck in my own head," she says. "I'll communicate something to them and go, 'Wow, that's not what I was thinking, but that's quite brilliant.'"
SEE IT: Converge will be at New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St., pdxcb.com. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 2:30 pm Sunday, Nov. 3-5. $5-$25.