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American rock climber, community leader, dancer, and choreographer Amelia Rudolph dreamt of flying as a child. Today, as Artistic Director of Bandaloop, she choreographs on the walls of skyscrapers, toll bridges, mountains, and in theaters in China, Mexico, the United States, and many other countries. In a dialogue, ICONS asks her to share her inspiration, process, and challenges.
ICONS Inspire: You’ve spoken about dreaming of flying. Can you tell us about that?
Amelia Rudolph: As a child, I had a recurring dream of being able to fly about six inches off the sidewalk, like a hovercraft, and it felt so good. I’ve learned I’m not the only person to have this kind of dream; many people have variations of it. Over time this dream repeated itself many times. Just after college, I was living in California, where I had experienced my first earthquake and I was living on the ocean, so there were some large forces at work externally and in my subconscious. This time I dreamt that I was able to fly up the side of a building and across the roof … for the first time I dreamt I was able to fly with a lot of distance below me. The feeling of the vast space between me and the ground was phenomenal. It’s that core feeling that is at the heart of the work. In a sense, I have drawn a deep cellular sensation and dream into my own life as a career and into the lives of others expressed through an active touring dance company in the teaching and performance we do.
ICONS: Tell us about your epiphany once you began climbing. What was familiar to you as a dancer in the climbing environment?
A.R.: In terms of the sensory side of that, I’ve always enjoyed turning upside-down and sideways, inhabiting my body in space in unexpected relationships to gravity. I was a competitive gymnast. I flipped around and was comfortable upside down and flying through the air a lot. I enjoyed swinging and inverting and flipping, though I also trained as a much more traditional dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Company and Ruth Page in Chicago. But inversion, turning sideways, and flight have been in my unconscious and in my cells for a very long time.
I got serious about climbing in 1989 to 1990. I ended up climbing a lot, both indoor climbing and climbing in the mountains. Climbing on rock, particularly when climbing on granite or other real rock, I had a strong sensation of the rock as a partner. It felt like a contact improvisation duet. As you climbed, your movement was going across and, most often, up the rock and each handhold became discoverable and your partner – the rock – allowed you and invited you to move forward. As a climber – and it was sometimes quite difficult – it felt like a real partnership and that sparked my imagination as a dancer and mover. Climbing also stretched my ability to focus, remain calm in challenging situations, and orient myself by route-finding in the mountains. It introduced me to many new skill sets. It also affirmed my love of high mountain spaces and the calm and grounding they offer.
ICONS: When did you realize as a choreographer that you could make a dance for climbers on the rock, beyond or outside of the studio environment?
A.R.: When I began to climb and saw the movement elegance of world-class climbers like Lynn Hill, Antoine le Menestrel, and Patrick Edlinger, I realized that the way they moved was dance and wondered more deeply about where dance and climbing intersected. High on a cliff one day in Yosemite early in my climbing experiences, I first imagined what dance might look like there in a space like that.
For the first big mountain piece, which we did in 1992 or ‘93, “Indecent Exposure,” we went to Yosemite – without permits, without permission – and climbed up the first pitches of the Dawn Wall to about 450 feet, the steepest part of the climb. It’s a very extreme rock environment. The pitch of El Capitan is extremely overhung, so as you climb, your rope hangs in the air, 80 to 100 feet away from the base of the rock. We climbed up with four dancers and four riggers/technicians for climber support; then we spent the night high on the cliff. At dawn on the Dawn Wall we rappelled down, dancing to live music. That was the first time I made a piece that was audacious and bold: Physically, technically, and logistically it was a feat.
ICONS: Can you share your choreographic process for creating dances that may be seen on a mountain, a bridge, or the side of a building?
A.R.: Some things are the same: We go into the studio as a group and we begin with kernels of ideas. I work very collaboratively with the dancers. I use a lot of scored improvisation to initiate the choreography. I build a lot of material that I cull and hone down into the final work. I contribute to that as well in terms of phrases, gesture, and ideas. Because I’ve been doing this work for 26 years, I’m able to stand on the ground with the dancers on the wall and say, “Okay, try this. You can go there, then go backwards.” I can craft, direct, and correct dancers on the wall interactively.
We’ll also build phrases on the ground and work on ideas on the floor before taking them to the wall. That’s much more for gestural work and the more nuanced portions of the choreography when you want to use your on-the-ground dancer self to dig in and feel your weight on the floor easily. Then we adapt that movement to the wall. But the big soaring, grander gestures available to us – most of that I build on the wall.
The wall in our studio is about 28 feet tall. Then we take what we are working on outside to The Great Wall in Oakland, which is a public art space that is a wall of the building where we also have our office. I direct from the sidewalk where I’m on the microphone, because the dancers are much further away. There we can do things that have greater loft and they are in the air longer, which makes the movement bigger. We might have done some choreography many times, but each time the environment changes, the piece changes. The piece might be faster or slower because of the height of the building, its structure, or a different topography. To be a Bandaloop dancer you have to be nimble, adaptable, and calm because things change.
ICONS: Is your work, particularly in urban spaces, political because it changes viewers’ perceptions of our lived spaces?
A.R.: I think it’s really important that people can work experimentally and push the limits and challenge their audiences. This is essential to our art making. Art that challenges can also be accessible. Dance audiences are dwindling, according to a major study by the Pew Charitable Trust, all over the country and all over the world. We are losing audiences because, among other things, everyone gets much of their art and entertainment online. Bandaloop makes dance “cool” and accessible and exciting and unusual. People say, “What are they doing?” Some call us crazy, or daredevils. If it gets them to come to a show, that’s fine. I am a dance maker, not a thrill seeker, but the spectacle is a way in for many who would not ordinarily see dance.
We can attract huge audiences as dance audiences go – 10,000 people in Monterrey; Puebla, Mexico; Shanghai; Providence. I call it the democratization of audience members for dance: Anybody can find what we do compelling. We are able to reach a lot more people who are more economically and culturally diverse than many dance audiences. That dance can be elitist and cloistered is a problem and one of the barriers to dance. We’re able to literally and physically take it to the streets. This is activating public space, and the way that we do it has a political streak, inviting anyone and everyone to the table or the sidewalk.
ICONS: What would you want a young choreographer to know that you didn’t know when you were starting out?
A.R.: That’s an interesting question. This answer has as much to do with the organization and making a career in dance, as it has to do with choreography itself. Understand your weaknesses and support yourself by bringing in people whose strengths will complement yours. Learn to listen and be humble. I came up in dance at a time when people were very strict and authoritarian. I felt that someday if I were a leader I was going to do things differently. While I can be decisive, I really enjoy collective thinking and inviting other voices into the conversation with me. Now more than ever in my lifetime, we’re so divided in other areas of our lives, globally and nationally. It’s important to listen to those who are very different from yourself.
Finally, as a young choreographer you should be aware that there is some inequality in our field, particularly when it has to do with women choreographers and people of color. Understand what’s going on, and put yourself near women and men who won’t hobble you in any way. Trust yourself. Be persistent. Surround yourself with a good team. Be strong enough to let go of things that aren’t serving the vision and remember to recharge your internal batteries.
MORE ABOUT AMELIA RUDOLPH:
Amelia Rudolph’s work is informed by natural and built spaces, human relationships, and by non-traditional relationships with gravity. She founded Bandaloop in 1991, bringing together dance, climbing, and varied off-the-ground movement into site-reactive performances on cliffs, urban structures, and in theaters. An active and dynamic performer, she teaches youth in Oakland, California, through Destiny Art Center. She recently served on the board of Dance/USA.
Rudolph holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in comparative religion from Swarthmore College and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. Her intellectual and artistic sensibilities inform her work, inspiring practical, spiritual, theoretical, and political creativity. Her choreography explores dance in theaters and on buildings and cliffs throughout the United States and around the world; Bandaloop has performed in 19 countries. She is continually challenged and inspired by her experiences in nature, with her dancers, and with communities that unearth and clarify her values, identity, and art.
Rudolph completed the National Endowment for the Arts funded re-mount of “Crossing,” filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in summer 2015, and made into a short film titled “SHIFT.” “SHIFT” opened the 2016 Sonoma International Film Festival and was shown in 16 festivals internationally, garnering two awards. She recently premiered her new multi-media urban performance work in San Francisco’s Tenderloin/Mid-Market district, “#SFPublic Canvas,” and is editing the new mountain film “Coyote Waltzes.” Rudolph and Bandaloop have been designated by the Trisha Brown Company to re-mount and perform Brown’s seminal work “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” exclusively throughout the world. Bandaloop’s collaboration with GoPro, “Waltz on the Walls of City Hall,” has garnered 2.5 million views on YouTube.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, performance, and the arts from the Washington, D.C. area.
Editor in Chief: Camilla Acquista, Dance ICONS, Inc. 2017 ©
Dancers: Andrew Ward, Jessica McKee
Photo Credit: Krystal Harfert
Dancers: Rachael Lincoln, Anje Lockhart, Roel Seeber,
Andrew Ward, Damara Ganley
Photo Credit: Atossa Soltani
Photo Credit: Stephen Texeira
Dancers: Amelia Rudolph, Mark Stuver, Kimm E. Ward
Photo Credit: Corey Rich
Dancers: Roel Seeber, Andrew Ward, Amelia Rudolph, Damara Ganley, Rachael Lincoln, Anje Lockhart
Photo Credit: Kelli Marsh
Photo Credit: Stephen Texeira