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Exit Dance Theatre members are taking to the air in celebration of the Newburyport company’s 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the dance troupe will perform an aerial piece during two performances this weekend at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport.

Oh, what a feeling. A group of Newburyport-based performers may not be dancing on the ceiling, but they’ll be dangling from the rafters during Exit Dance Theatre’s 20th anniversary performances this weekend.

“This piece is killing me,” said Stephen Haley, dancer and co-choreographer of the aerial acrobatic dance piece. “You work a whole different set of muscles hanging in the air. I have aches and pains like you wouldn’t believe. The belt pulls on your rib cage and you have to use an incredible amount of arm and upper-body strength. But the piece is super, and it will all be worth it.”

Haley is one of Exit Dance Theatre’s five founding members, who first met as students at the former Bradford College. After graduation, Haley together with Susan Atwood, Fontaine Dollas Dubus, Cheryl Schwind and Linda Lazarro Mangini continued their love for theater and dance through various projects. In 1987, they decided to form a modern dance company.

“It took a few years, but it was meant to happen,” Dubus said. “The Firehouse (Center for the Arts) wasn’t built yet, so we’d use (the then) Governor Dummer Academy for performance space, or little places here and there. We’d go into Boston and use, you know, black box places. It was great once they put the Firehouse in because it was a local place to seasonally present our pieces.”

It was challenging at first for the five young founders to get the company up and running. They learned the true meaning of compromise and never received a paycheck for their work. Any profits from one show would go toward developing the next one.

“There were five healthy adults with five healthy egos in a room — coming to a consensus on the direction of the company was hard,” Haley said. “The very nature of collaboration is hard. There were many, many bumps over the years, but we kept working through the creative process. There are so many active imaginations within this company.”

Despite the difficulties, the founders’ core friendship has never wavered. For example, their families gather for a Thanksgiving feast every year.

“The core group of us has been in each other’s lives since college,” Haley said. “We’re preserving the ties we’ve built up over the past 20 years of doing this.”

Haley believes the company will continue for another 20 years, largely due to what he says is Dubus’ steadfast dedication as co-director.

“Plus, there’s a new generation of dancers coming up behind us and there’s another behind them,” Haley said. “As long as people want to dance, the company will be around.”

Dubus would like to see the company perform at venues farther from its home turf as it enters its third decade, but realizes the nonprofit troupe needs more funding for that.

“Modern dance tends to be at the bottom of the list of nonprofits because we’re competing with people fighting disease and increasing education,” Dubus said. “But we’ve always made it work. We’ll make money from a show and it will all dwindle down to nothing after we pay all the bills. We’re just treading water. But the dancers are so great — they’ll offer to buy a costume for a piece if they can use it again.”

For this weekend’s 20th anniversary performances, Exit will resurrect some work from roughly a decade ago as well as introduce a few new pieces.

One of the new works, “Threads,” will see the dancers — legs extended, feet pointed — suspended from the rafters like spiders spinning to original music by local composer Tom Eaton.

Newburyport artist Gordon Przybyla has created a manipulated film of the performers dancing to music by local band Tiger Saw. And Dubus has choreographed a solo piece titled “Millie’s on the Verge” to music by Byfield fiddler E.J. Ouellette.

“I like that the show highlights a lot of different strengths in the dancers, as they get to do acrobatic stuff,” Dubus said. “It’s a moody show — not as comical as usual. But the dance is really strong.”



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