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Oakland’s “Great Wall” hosts off-the-wall dance troupe

on September 17, 2011

Amelia Rudolph has duped gravity for 20 years. The choreographer’s repertoire includes impossibly long, slow motion leaps and tumbles, achieved by suspending her troupe, Project Bandaloop, over the edges of cliffs and buildings. At times, the dancers turn dreamily in backflips that stretch across space, like slow pinwheels. Or they suddenly stop, spinning endlessly in midair.

The aerial dance company’s founder and director, Rudolph calls Bandaloop a hybrid of “the technology of rock climbing with the aesthetics of dance.” Her team, using ropes and harnesses, glides across vertical surfaces, sometimes hundreds of feet high. Their strange sideways dance suggests elements of circus arts in one moment, synchronized swimming in another.

In celebration of Bandaloop’s 20th anniversary season, the troupe is debuting Rudolph’s latest work, Bound(less) this weekend. Her stage for the event is the Great Wall of Oakland, the windowless backside of an uptown commercial building. Developer Chris Curtis, who owns the building, curator Issabella Shields and the Oakland Museum of California, collaboratively manage content for the Great Wall. Their large format video screenings, projected from the apartment roof across the street, have become a fixture of First Friday art walks. “We are always looking to find new ways to enliven the Wall,” said Shields.

Dancer Melecio Estrella, sitting in a rocking chair, confesses his Googlephilia to the audience. 

Rudolph uses strong visual elements to explore the physical solitude, and imagined connectedness, of virtual life. With the city as a backdrop, Bound(less) “explores the way we understand our private and public identity,” said Rudolph. “Not only how we define ourselves, but what we see reflected in the electronic universe.”

The performance opens with a spotlight on a solo trombonist, composer Dana Leong, standing at the building’s apex. He spouts the first wailing notes of a lonely prelude that is quickly engulfed by an electric wash of sound from his band ten stories below. In a short monologue, dancer Melecio Estrella, suspended in a rocking chair, confesses to daily Googling his own name. “78,400 results today, all together telling me: ‘You are small,’” he said. “Who am I when the power goes out?”

Throughout the narrative Estrella and other dancers struggle to find connection. Sometimes  they move together, at other times they try to push each other away. Due to their rigging, which is taken into account by the choreography, running one direction always results in an eventual pendulum swing back the other way.

The rules of movement in vertical dance seem at once liberating and confining. Being tethered to ropes, the dancers must maintain their related positions to avoid becoming tangled. But within those confines, the normal rules of gravity are overridden; parallel to the ground, they soar, run and literally throw each other back and forth across the wall.

The inception of this stylistic marriage of dance and climbing happened when Rudolph was trying to hold on to “a sparkling piece of granite” in the Sierra Nevada mountains, she said. She’d negotiated a technically challenging climb and was finally near the top of her route. “I was totally focused and totally present and I thought, ‘What would it be like to dance here?’” said Rudolph.

Now, directing other performers with from the ground through a microphone, she demands that same mental toughness and aesthetic precision from her company. During back-to-back dress rehearsals on Wednesday, the phrase “I know you’re tired,” was a signal that she was about to ask the hanging dancers to repeat some physically demanding feat.

The run-through was interspersed with the wailing of nearby sirens and yells from rubberneckers passing by. It seemed somehow appropriate, like the dance version of John Cage’s chance-based concerts. “It’s like taking a theater piece and putting it outside,” said Rudolph.

One of her strengths as a director has been her ability to express her vision while also allowing room for collaboration. During rehearsals for her company’s first program, Rudolph, then only 28, was approached by famed rock climber Hans Florine, an American known for setting several world speed climbing records, asking how he could get involved. “I remember one of the first things I said to him was, ‘I’d be thrilled to work with you under one condition—I am the director of the show,’” Rudolph said.

That was in 1991. Florine is still rigging for Rudolph today, and the company is still approached by big-name artists seeking to get involved in the project. Leong has travelled from New York throughout the last several months for the chance to work with Bandaloop. The 30-year-old composer, known for his collaborations with musicians as diverse as Barry White and Bjork, moonlights as an actor and was elected “Most Stylish” by Time out New York magazine. He also helped Yamaha to design the latest version of the electric cello he uses for performances.

Leong’s scores vary from sweeping fantasias to jaunty, clown-like ditties. His keen sense for emotional subtlety and range escorts Bound(less) through its moods and themes: isolation and longing; narcissism and togetherness; humor and solemnity.

His aural reveries, along with an ecstasy of movement, build toward an awe-inspiring finale. All six dancers are lowered at once, moving like one amoebic entity that suddenly ejects members, sending them flailing through the air. “Who am I when the power goes out?” Estrella had previously asked. He ends with “Just flesh and blood. Just a real human voice.”

Then as the lights come back on, the dancers take turns leaping away from the wall, looking upwards at the audience, and waving. It is the opposite of a bow.

Tonight is the last chance to catch the Bound(less) world premiere. The show starts at 8:30 on Grand Ave. between Broadway and Valley St. The event is free and fills up fast, so get there early.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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