Shawn Ahern likes to tell people that he learned to dance before he learned to walk.
“My mom was a professional dancer, and the joke is that I have been dancing ever since I was in her tummy,” said Ahern.
Soon after he was born, his mother took him to dance recitals and classes. “She would be teaching and I would be hanging out in the corner coloring,” he said.
Now 26, Ahern is still dancing. The New Hampshire native is a member of the modern dance company known as Pilobolus. The troupe performs Friday at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.
Pilobolus has deep New England roots. It was founded by Dartmouth College students, who were taking a class taught by Alison Chase.
Chase and her students launched the company in 1971. It is based in rural Connecticut. Chase, who left the company a few years ago, lives in Deer Isle.
The company takes its name from a fungus that grows on cow dung.
Although he works out of Connecticut, Ahern considers New Hampshire his home. His mom owns a dance school in the Granite State, and Ahern returns to his home in Dublin often. If not New Hampshire, Ahern said he would make his home in Portland. He has family in Maine, and his brother Doug works as a chef at DiMillo’s.
He’ll have a large contingent of family and friends at Friday’s performance. The program includes five dances from across four decades of the company’s repertory. The oldest on the program, “Ocellus,” dates to 1972. It was among the first pieces the Dartmouth College kids created, and it features four men exploring balance, grace and controlled movements.
The newest piece is a dance called “[esc],” and it was created in collaboration with the Las Vegas illusionists Penn and Teller.
“It’s a Houdini-inspired escape piece,” Ahern said. “We use movement to create this homage to Houdini. It’s all about athleticism, confinement and using flexibility and strength to break out of it.”
Pilobolus has created about 120 pieces over its 43-year history. At any given time, the company keeps about 30 dancers fresh and ready to go. It tailors each program to the city, the character of the performance space and qualities of the dance floor, Ahern said.
The Pilobolus aesthetic combines the athleticism of gymnastics with the spectacle of the circus arts, said Aimee Petrin, executive director of Portland Ovations, which is presenting Friday’s show.
Portland Ovations last brought Pilobolus to Portland during the 2009-10 season.
“What I like about them is that they are very inventive and innovative, and always look for new ways to work,” Petrin said. “They are accessible and contemporary. You don’t have to like dance, per se, to appreciate and enjoy a Pilobolus performance.”
Pilobolus tells a narrative with its dances, while celebrating the strength and beauty of the human body, she said.
Ahern first associated with Pilobolus when he was a sophomore at Keene State College in New Hampshire. The company’s associate artistic director, Renee Jaworski, brought the troupe to school to work with students.
After graduating with a degree in theater and dance, he won an audition among 150 dancers to join the company. Ahern performs between 90 and 130 shows annually.
“We might go out for four or five days, and then come back for a few days to rest. Or we might go out for a month or five weeks or six weeks,” he said. “Our life as a touring dance company is pretty hectic, but it’s great to see the world and see the United States and perform what you helped create.”
Staying in shape is not a concern, he added. He’s an athlete as much as he is a performer, and he trains as a pro athlete trains.
“You have to be in the best shape of your life, and the work makes your body get in that shape,” he said. “You definitely have to eat right, not because you are going to get out of shape, but because your body needs high-quality fuel to perform at the high level that we are required to perform at day in and day out. If you have a job that is not physical, you have to find time to work out. But we’re doing that all the time, every day. We have to find time to rest.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: