Plexus flexes avant-garde dance muscles with ‘Poise’

If a window hadn’t been stuck in a New York apartment, Plexus Dance might never have taken its first baby steps in Charlotte.

But it was. And Juliana Tilbury, reaching over a radiator and straining to lift it, dislocated her spine. That was the straw that broke the dancer’s back, the last in a series of unhappy events that convinced Tilbury and her husband to take a job transfer and start over in Charlotte in 2011.

Her No. 1 goal, she says, “was to live my life without waking up in tears every morning. When pain is that real, it’s always in your head. But my brain still kept asking, ‘What’s your next dance situation?’ ”

When the pain ended after a year and a half, the answer came: Plexus Dance. That company gives its second full program Thursday through Saturday at Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square.

Tilbury merely expected to set “Poise,” a work about paths chosen or not chosen in life. But when a dancer dropped out unexpectedly, she stirred her 32-year-old feet into motion.

“Poise,” the centerpiece of the new show, lasts about 45 minutes. (It will be paired with a short film in which Tilbury dances.) Seen in rehearsal, much of it seemed to be about connection: fear of it, desire for it, rejection and then acceptance of it.

“I think I might want to keep that, but I need to see it in context,” Tilbury murmured, watching dancers run through her steps in a Plaza-Midwood studio borrowed from choreographer Martha Connerton. “I think Josh needs to take two steps forward here,” dancer Sarah Ingel commented. Tilbury mused. “Yeah, maybe,” she said with a nod.

Collaboration is nothing new for the San Diego native. She took ballet in high school, where revelatory teacher Carol Mead introduced Tilbury to modern dance and convinced her she could dance for a living. She studied at Boston Conservatory, then performed with modern companies in New York for seven years.

But choreography is new. “In New York,” she says, “I constantly took classes and saw shows. There was an abundance of stimuli. In Charlotte, without those stimuli, I felt a wild drive to make work. I’m very independent, and I knew I needed to start a company. But I’m exhausted, because I’m doing everything myself.”

She named Plexus for a place in the body where many nerves meet, a spot that’s a center of movement for modern dancers. As you might guess from the name, she wants us to understand her pieces intuitively: “My work is emotionally driven, not conceptual.”

Dance fans may see hints of Pina Bausch in Tilbury’s work. She also counts Lar Lubovitch, José Limón and Doug Varone among her influences. And though her company is in its infancy, she’s already thinking of the strides she’d like to make.

“I’m not good at the schmoozing thing, so I’m having to learn,” she says of fundraising. “The Blumenthal has given us a rental waiver, for which I’m grateful. I’m paying the dancers a little out of pocket, trying to be legitimate, but I don’t want to do administrative work full-time.

“I’d like to build this company up to the point where I’m making six or eight new works a year and doing residencies at college. I also want to get back to New York to see new works, so I’m not making dances that look like they came from 20 years ago. But my main goal is to stay inspired and active – and that’s very hard.”