Begin with the flexibility of a contortionist and the fearlessness of a trapeze artist. Throw in the grace of a dancer and the athleticism of a gymnast, and you begin to describe Pendulum Aerial Arts. The local troupe of flying dancers has a new show opening at the Portland Art Museum, full of visual excitement and intellectual stimulation.

And no net.

With High Art, Artistic Director Suzanne Kenney takes us on a very personal journey through eight stages of life. Each stage derives inspiration from a painting created by a modern master, including Salvador Dalí and Georgia O'Keeffe. For copyright reasons, "legally we can't include the paintings," Kenney says, "but it's pretty obvious which acted as the catalyst." Assuming you took art history. Whether it's Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" or Pablo Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror," each leads to the eventual "transformation to a higher place" that Kenney believes happens to us all as we mature.

Kenney certainly knows about transformation. Starting her career as a local actress and modern dancer, Portland Center Stage (PCS) hired Kenney in 1996 to play one of the flying fairies in their acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "My passion was completely ignited," she says. "I just knew it was what I was supposed to do. It was uncanny."

When the show closed, she and fellow dancer Mike Barber (the creator of the popular Ten Tiny Dances series) bought the trapeze equipment from PCS and started Aero/Betty, Portland's first aerial dance company and one of only a handful in the entire country. "We were completely naïve," she laughs. Their first show used the cranes of the Portland shipyards as a backdrop.

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Nearly 15 years later, Kenney calls her company "more a European-style contemporary circus" than a modern dance company, and it thrives with guest artists from around the world visiting Portland to perform with or train her intrepid troupe. For High Art Kenney enlisted personnel from Cirque du Soleil's Kooza and brought in musicians from LA and New York to perform live.

"Aerial is so much harder than modern dance," Kenney says. "It's very taxing and a lot of injuries can happen." Particularly when you're 20 feet above the ballroom at the Portland Art Museum—without a net.