Not sleeping will kill you. Unless, maybe, you flip insomnia on its head like Portland dancer Eliza Larson is doing.

Trying to break the world record for time spent awake, a high-schooler in the 1960s lasted 11 days before cognitive deficiencies and hallucinations set in. And people who suffer from a rare genetic disease called "fatal familial insomnia" will die if they go untreated. The most famous case lasted six months without sleep.

"My insomnia started in graduate school," says Larson, who choreographed a sleep-inspired dance called In Circadia that debuts this weekend. While in grad school, her circadian pattern—the cycle of sleeping and waking that every living thing experiences—got out of sync. This dance is her attempt to understand the insomnia that once horrified her, and it also might have reset her rhythm.

Larson had been spending a lot of time alone. After leaving her native Pacific Northwest for school in Massachusetts, she took a solo residency in Mazatlan, Mexico. Even after she returned to Portland, Larson's main project was a long-distance dance collective called Mountain Empire, where members used Skype or snail mail to communicate.

"At the end of the day, it's still you in the studio by yourself," says Larson. "I was really ready to be in the studio with other dancers." So Larson decided to turn her traumatic sleeplessness into inspiration. In Circadia marks her return to working with other dancers in person. It is also her first attempt at artistically tackling the insomnia that she says "struck fear into my heart."

"You start to watch yourself fall asleep, and watching yourself activates your brain, so you wake up again," she says. "It happens for hours and hours. Witnessing your body fall asleep stops you from falling asleep."

(Eliza Larson – Photo by Bill Watt)
(Eliza Larson – Photo by Bill Watt)

For In Circadia, Larson tried to channel the complex patterns of sleeping and dreaming into dance. The five-part performance has distinct sections, each inspired by a stage of pre-REM or REM sleep. "It's really…spirally," says Larson, who is using dancers with ballet backgrounds but choreographing moves that are inspired by floor techniques from Mazatlan.

"Everything is allowed," she says. "Chaos and extreme organization."

The Flock stage will be filled with fast flutters of motion and bright light one minute, then slow, contorting floor work and dim light the next. (Watch a clip of In Circadia rehearsals here.) "Anyone who's ever tried to describe a dream to a friend knows that a dream is only ever interesting to you," says Larson. "When you try to translate a dream into words, it becomes flat and uninteresting." Instead of using words, Larson is translating dreams into motion and using a process that sounds a lot like therapy. She asked dancers to keep a dream journal. When the REM section of the dance comes, Larson says it is mostly the dancers improvising based on their own experiences.

"Dreams can be so non sequitur. We can be silly, tender, ridiculous," she says.

Larson is dreaming again now. Since she moved in to a house in Northeast Portland and started collaborating again, her insomnia has stopped.

"Dreaming is a sweet space," Larson says.

See it: In Circadia will be performed as a work in progress with Aglaeca in the show Late Summer Harvest. Flock Dance Center, 8371 N Interstate Ave., Studio 4. 8 pm Saturday, Aug. 27. $5-$10 sliding scale.