Float (TopShakeDance)

Cuttin' a rug here, under the sea.

Swim instructors will tell you that floating on your back is a nifty trick for staying alive when stranded in a body of water. It's an act that involves a sort of urgent calm: Either relax or die.

That's what Jim McGinn learned while he was in his 20s, training to swim 21 miles across Southern California's Catalina Channel. He never completed the swim—he was pulled out of the water with hypothermia after eight hours—but the experience inspired his newest piece, Float, with his dance company, TopShakeDance.

"Issues with fear and the real struggle with hypothermia would make me lose my mind, in a way, or just drift outside myself," says McGinn, a 53-year-old with a day job as a physicist.

Swimming in the ocean—especially in darkness, as McGinn did in 5 am trainings—is beautiful but frightening. The cold, the isolation and the threat of what lurks beneath the surface all influence his  aquatic-themed piece in a way more ominous than bubbly.

"There's always a sense of mystery to Jim's pieces," says dancer Dana Detweiler. "You're always unsure. Every time it could be a little different."

To give dancers a sense of the movement he was after, McGinn took them to rehearse on the floating docks just south of the Hawthorne Bridge. In May, the company performed a 15-minute segment at the docks for a crowd of about 15, some of whom watched from canoes.

The piece that opens this weekend is perhaps too long—in rehearsal, the 70-minute work sometimes feels like it is indeed floating, not going anywhere. But if you lean into it, you might be able to go with the flow.

SEE IT: Float is at Conduit Dance, 918 SW Yamhill St., Suite 401, 221-5857. 8:30 pm Friday-Sunday, Nov. 1-3, and Wednesday-Friday, Nov. 6-8. $12-$25.