Turning the Dance Floor on its Side
Project Bandaloop performs on the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City. Photo by Atossa Soltani
Anyone who lives in or has visited Washington knows the Old Post Office Pavilion. Built in 1899, the building is a major city landmark, renowned for its gorgeous Romanesque revival architecture and 315-foot clock tower. It’s also home to several federal agencies, including our very own NEA.
But tonight at 9 p.m., the historic Old Post Office will transform into a vertical stage when frequent NEA grantee Project Bandaloop dances, leaps, and twists along the façade as it performs its aerial production of Bound(less). Mixing intricate choreography with the rigor of rappelling, the company was founded in 1991 by Amelia Rudolph, who continues to serve as Project Bandaloop’s artistic director. Since then, the company has performed on such unusual spaces as the Seattle Space Needle, a Norwegian fjord, the Oakland Museum in California, cliff and mountain faces, and a 180-foot billboard in Times Square.
Tonight’s free performance is part of the Kennedy Center’s “Look Both Ways: Street Art Across America” festival, and will feature musician and composer Dana Leong performing on the wall alongside the dancers. In anticipation of the event, I spoke with Amelia Rudolph about her incredible, perspective-bending company, the most memorable space she’s ever danced on, and what it feels like to fly.
NEA: How did you initially dream up the idea for Project Bandaloop?
AMELIA RUDOLPH: I’ve danced my whole life. In 1989, I started to climb for the first time in the Sierra. At that time, there actually weren’t that many indoor climbing gyms like there are now; most of the climbing took place in the mountains. As I was climbing one day, high on a ridge in the Sierra, in this absolutely gorgeous place, I wondered what it would be like to create a site-specific work, or dance, in a site like that. How could you dance high in the mountains, on rock, or on a cliff? At the same time, I realized all my dance fed into climbing, and many things about climbing felt like dance to me inside my body.
At the same time, I was doing my master’s thesis as a performance, and writing about why I was doing a performance. So I wrote a master’s thesis, but I also danced it. This was all happening at the same time and out of that came a group of people, and an idea, and a new indoor climbing gym was opening. I asked the owner, Peter Mayfield, “Hey, do you think we can come into your gym and experiment with the idea of cross-pollinating climbing and dance?” He was extremely supportive. We did a show there in 1991 in the climbing gym, and people really, really responded to it. I think it was so many things: the re-framing of dance, seeing sport and art together---so many things came together in that first performance. And for 20 years now, I’ve been putting dance in unusual urban and natural places. We’re a dance company that’s rigorously performing contemporary dance, complex choreography. We are very not circus-like. We just do it in unusual spaces and on a vertical dance floor.
NEA: How do you rehearse for “stages” that are as unique as the ones you perform on, particularly when you have to take weather into account?
RUDOLPH: We treat our studio space, which is the performance space, as a cross between a stage and a rock climb, or a hike. You have to be prepared. We actually will rehearse in some drizzle and some rain; we will rehearse in wind up to a point. We’ve rehearsed in Dayton, Ohio, in 18-degree weather. You have to do what you have to do, and you have to be really prepared and mentally tough to be able to do it.
So there’s that. Then we’re bringing a complex, full-length work to the Old Post Office that we’ve done in Oakland on a flat wall, in Miami on a Frank Gehry building that was also a flat wall, and we’re adapting it to the Old Post Office. There are several sections that I’m going to completely change; you just cannot do it on this building. I’m really looking forward to finding out what that building brings out in this piece. We have four days on the building prior to show, and we’ll be rehearsing as much as they let us.
Dancers Amelia Rudolph and Rachael Lincoln perform on Wildcat Point in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Corey Rich
NEA: What’s the process like between looking at a building or a cliff, and figuring out which movements will work on that surface?
RUDOLPH: Thomas Cavanagh, who’s my technical director among many other hats that he wears, took lots of pictures of the building and figured out how to rig the building on his technical scout. I and the dancers together are studying the pictures of the building. I know where everybody’s going to be during every piece, they are aware that there is 17-inch step down at this place, they’re aware that there’s a ledge above them here or below them there, a window frame here. We’ve been rehearsing the choreography as we know it, and I reasserted my encouragement to them yesterday that we all have to remain very open-minded to how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to change the piece to be on this particular building. You can’t ask the last dance company that danced on the building, “How was your experience?” So it’s exciting. It’s like the first descent of a river, or the first ascent of a mountain. This will be the first ascent of the Post Office for us.
I’m going to be there on day one with my assistant director Rachael Lincoln and the riggers. We will rappel on what we’ve identified to be the most tricky spots on the building. I’m very aware of certain decisions that I have to make on day one. Based on those decisions, we’ll decide for example whether to rig high or rig low on some of the pieces. Rigging high is going to mean on the central tower, we’ll be rigging out the top windows. To rig high means when you push off, you have huge loft, meaning you fly through the air for a pretty long time before you land again. Versus rigging low when you pin the rope further down the building so that there’s less rope between you and your anchor and your jumps are smaller.
NEA: Do you have any hopes or expectations for your performance on the Old Post Office?
RUDOLPH: Every stage that is a building has history, and so many things have happened inside the building, and in front of the building, and on the streets below the building. I feel like when we come and animate that space for the performance, there’s a way where we’re interacting with everything that’s ever happened in that building. Aside from [wishing] that the audience is inspired and moved by the performance that they see, I hope that there’s a relationship that occurs over the week between our company and the architecture itself, the people who work in the building.
NEA: You’ve performed in some incredible places. Which site has been the most memorable for you?
RUDOLPH: It’s very, very hard to choose one, because I’ve had so many experiences that were just so memorable in different ways. One extremely memorable experience in an urban setting was over 12 or 13 years ago, we performed in Houston off the first huge skyscraper that we’d ever performed on. We performed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet with the Houston Symphony. It was earlier in my career, it was a huge challenge, it was very hot, it was a black skyscraper. Christoph Eschenbach conducted and turned out to be an incredibly gentle and sweet and amazing person who listened to what I had to say, considering how famous he was even back then.
I would say another is the six days I spent climbing El Capitan in Yosemite to create a piece called Peregrine Dreams, because the combination of how difficult that was, and how much logistical rigmarole went on to be able to pull off such a thing. We literally climbed with six people for six days and five nights; we slept on the wall. It’s almost 3,000 feet; we danced at 2,400. Just to know that it was possible at all to create art in that context was just incredible.
Dancers Rachael Lincoln, Anje Lockhart, Roel Seeber, Andrew Ward, and Damara Ganley perform Bound(less) on the New World Symphony Building in Miami Beach. Photo by Atossa Soltani
NEA: You also do performances in more traditional theater settings. How do you compare these very public, outdoor performances with your work in theaters?
RUDOLPH: There are things that each of them has that the other doesn’t. When we’re on a building, you can’t see our faces much. I do everything I can choreographically to have the dancers look out and look down and look for the audience, because it’s so important to see a person’s face when they’re performing. However, it has grand scale and magic and beauty, and the relationship to gravity is so skewed that it really changes your perspective and how you think at moments.
When we perform in a theater, you can look right at the audience. I can use the wonderful, liminal area between the floor and the air, or the floor and the wall, where one dancer’s on the ground, and one is in the air. I love working that transitional zone between these two worlds. I try to activate unusual spaces in the theater.
Of course, people pay to come sit in a seat in a theater, so your audiences are likely to be more traditional dance audiences. In the street, you may get those audiences, but you’re also going to get people who have never seen dance. I feel like we are ambassadors of the form in a way that is very important to me and to the organization, to bring dance to people who have never seen it before. Many of them are expecting a stunt. They’re expecting trickery. And what they get is dance. We get this response all the time: “I just wasn’t expecting to be moved,” or “I wasn’t expecting actual crafted dances.” I really enjoy that aspect of it.
NEA: Since most of us won’t be in a position where we’ll ever be dancing on the side of a building, how would you describe the experience?
RUDOLPH: It is a paradoxical combination of wonderful freedom, release, a sense of soaring, and intense effort, occasional pain, extreme mental focus. There are moments when I don’t notice the feeling of the harness on my body, or how tired my abs are, and I’m just flying through the air, or doing intricate footwork near an architectural feature, and I’m completely absorbed in what I’m doing. And other times, I will notice how tired I am. It is an endurance test at times, and the piece we’re doing in DC is one. I’ve been really working the dancers as best I can here in the studio, literally doing calisthenics practically along the wall along with the choreography. In order to actually hold on to the magic and beauty of the choreography 48 minutes into a dance like this, you have to train really hard. So it’s a combination of this mental focus, physical stress on your body, and releasing all of that, forgetting all of that, not feeling any of that. You’re floating on the music and in the air and the light, and it’s like a dream. You can’t believe that it’s actually real. And then you land and you realize your abs are sore and you’re reminded that it’s real.
NEA: Are most of your dancers also climbers, or not necessarily?
RUDOLPH: Not necessarily. I would say half of them enjoy climbing, but the first generation [of company members] included a lot more avid climbers. When I want to do something really technical in the mountains, I’d probably draw on some of them. Which is not to say these dancers can’t dance on a cliff, but this group is more highly trained as dancers. What we’re doing now is so danceical, that it requires a high level of skill as a dancer. Believe it or not, almost anybody can learn how to rappel off a skyscraper. But not almost anyone can be the kind of dancer that I’m looking for, which is a very smooth, released, beautiful, original mover.
NEA: Part of your mission statement says that Project Bandaloop “honors nature, community, and the human spirit.” How do those three forces manifest themselves in your work?
RUDOLPH: When we’re dancing high in the mountains on sparkling granite and the wind’s blowing and the peregrine falcons are flying by and you’re hundreds of feet off the ground, and you’re dancing, there’s a sense for me as a performer where it’s mystical; it’s not about entertainment. I don’t really need or want to put it in words as to what it is, but it’s an honoring of that place. It’s an honoring of the relationships of the animals and the geography and the sky above. In those ways, I think it celebrates the power of those spaces. And I hope through the films [of the performances], for people who’ve never been to Yosemite, or seen the mountains, or been outside the city, it lets them know that places like that exist. It may tune them into their vulnerability, it may tune them into the reality that we as the human race are impacting the world quite heavily. I’d love to do a piece in the rainforest; I still haven’t. If I knew how to dance underwater, I’d do something about the garbage patch. There’s a way where art can do that.
So there’s a political, advocacy side to it, as well as a spiritual side. When we were performing in [Oakland], there were almost 4,000 people in the street at Broadway and Grand. The police had to cordon an extra block so that we could fit the crowd in, and there was live music and dance and lights and beauty and magic occurring. All those people were there for the sole purpose of experiencing magic and beauty and dance. The community sense that was going on in the street---you could feel it. I was there in the street with them; it was palpable. Celebrating that sense of community is celebrating the human spirit. And I hope that the DC event…because it’s at night, with live music and lights, will have, I hope a kind of almost magical realism. Like you can’t believe this is happening here, now. And I don’t know, it might not. You never know.