Open Space

Portland's dance companies fight breweries for urban real estate.

EN POINTE: NWDP's new dance studio took more than a year to find after the company's eviction.


After a recent bankruptcy scare, the Oregon Ballet Theatre sold its longtime practice space in inner Southeast Portland last October to apartment developers to pay off old debts. Meanwhile, Polaris Dance Theater and Conduit Dance have both been evicted from their longtime homes, an old story of artists being forced to leave the neighborhoods they once helped make attractive. 

After being forced to leave its space on ever-posher North Mississippi Avenue, Northwest Dance Project had been left squatting at Portland State University while the company put together its new creative center in industrial-district Kerns, which will encompass classes, company rehearsals and shared studio space. The new center at Northeast 10th Avenue and Davis Street is one of the largest dance studios in the city. 

But NWDP director Scott Lewis and artistic director Sarah Slipper say the search was arduous. They toured dozens of buildings, in a lengthy hunt that took more than a year of scouting locations, followed by months to negotiate a lease. 

“It isn’t just, ‘Oh, let’s find a building and put a floor down and start dancing,’” Lewis says. 

Portland's other celebrated industries offer some of the stiffest competition for space. What the company was searching for—and what both Conduit and Polaris also need in their new spaces—was a building with "clear span." In other words, ceilings without pillars and an accessible location. But that means dance companies have to fight off incoming breweries, distilleries, tech firms and marijuana growers, who are all looking for the same open warehouse space so coveted by studios.

"It's hard right now because Portland is so hot," says Slipper. Aside from the incoming breweries, Portland's population is expected to hit the 3 million mark by 2035, according to Metro—an influx of up to 725,000 people in the next 20 years.

"It'll be challenging," says Tere Mathern, artistic director of Conduit, of what she expects in the dance community's immediate future. "I think it's a challenge to keep the arts truly alive in a city that's going to be expanding in density. There needs to be really clear pathways for arts organizations to still be in the city. It doesn't have to be all business, all retail, without the arts involved."

Conduit became the latest Portland dance company forced to relocate when its rental agreement suddenly fell through last month. The dance troupe had shared a location with Nia Technique, a fitness company, at Southwest 9th Avenue and Yamhill Street for the past five years. Conduit announced March 13 it had been given five days to get out of its fourth-floor ballroom space.

"This is hard, but we're not going away," says Mathern of the fast turnaround for the organization. "There's sort of a message of hope and an ongoing pursuit, as opposed to low morale." Since leaving its space March 18, Conduit has moved into extra office space provided by Polaris Dance Theatre, packed most of its equipment into storage, and arranged for classes and performances to continue through September at other locations. Already, the organization is discussing an agreement for a temporary, shared space in close-in Southeast Portland while it seeks a more permanent location. But Mathern expects the search for a long-term home to take years.

Details are still under wraps for the tentative new locations of OBT, Conduit and Polaris, since they are still in negotiations. But looking forward, several dance companies' artistic directors agree they want long-term leases, like the 10-year agreement NWDP signed for its new space after being given a 45-day notice to leave its former location on Mississippi.

"We've lived with that precarious existence for a long time, and then the hammer fell, and it's just exhausting," Lewis says. "You're always looking over your shoulder.” 

WWeek 2015

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