Turning the industrial steel doorknob, I pushed my way through a weighted door into a cavernous space with glossy wooden floors and impossibly high ceilings. Conduit Dance’s new space in Southeast Portland's Ford Building is striking and vast—sunlight floods in through the expansive street level windows, playfully casting glimmers of light on the floor. But these changes aren’t by choice; the nonprofit was forced to relocate when the rental agreement on its downtown studio fell through in March 2015.
Conduit’s artistic director Tere Mathern, who’s been with the company since 1997, claims Portland’s rising real estate market has been systematically pushing the arts further away from the city center. Conduit isn’t the only dance organization affected: Polaris Dance Theatre was evicted around the same time as Conduit; Northwest Dance Project used temporary space at Portland State for nine months after being booted from its North Mississippi studio in 2014; and Oregon Ballet Theatre was forced to sell its inner Southeast practice space to pay off lingering debt. Breweries, office space, and retail shops are descending on prime downtown real estate, and these major urban developments deeply affect low-income individuals and nonprofits, Mathern says.
After a decade in an airy ballroom downtown, Conduit’s new home has a more industrial feel, but Mathern describes the transition as an opportunity for growth. She hopes to focus more on technique training and education by offering more workshops, master classes, youth-based classes, and perhaps even a caretaker and child class.
Conduit currently hosts an evolving schedule of roughly eight classes each week, including beginner-friendly offerings like the tension-releasing Alexander Technique and other contemporary dance styles. Another great class for non-dancers is Conduit’s improvisation and journaling class, “Trying it on for Size,” which provides insight into the entry points of choreographing. (While many studios in Portland offer traditional ballet and modern classes, improvisation classes give you the freedom to have fun and think critically about your movement, Mathern claims.)
With a drop-in class price of $15, Conduit struggles to make classes financially accessible to the public while paying instructors and maintaining the new space. Mathern notes that Conduit is part of a larger conversation about our city growing into a behemoth. How can we encourage growth while also maintaining that artistic, creative spirit that made Portland so unique in the first place? “We are choosing now whether or not to place value on the arts,” she says.
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