by Natalie Berry – UK Climbing Jul/2016
A video has been doing the rounds on social media recently – receiving over 26,000 views so far – featuring a troupe of dancers using a climbing wall as an apparatus upon which to choreograph a dance routine. Isabel Rittberg is the founder, artistic director and a dancer within the group AscenDance – based in Boulder, Colorado in the United States.
Combining climbing moves, dance elements and music, Isabel has created a new art form which focusses on the more graceful and gymnastic aspects of climbing – there’s no grunting or powerscreaming here!
I asked Isabel a few questions about her project…
What is your background in performing arts and climbing?
I have danced since I was young. Ballet, Hip Hop, Ballroom, Salsa. I also played the piano growing up. Music has impacted my life greatly. It moves me, emotionally and physically. When I fell in love with climbing in college, it felt a lot like dance. My flexibility, body awareness and balance helped me advance quickly. Watching good climbers defy gravity with such grace left with the relentless desire to combine my three passions: music, dance and climbing.
When did you realise that you could perform dance routines on the climbing wall?
When I had the vision, I had no doubt that it was possible. I just needed to build a climbing wall with big enough holds. Our first routines were simple. With time our vocabulary of movement has grown incredibly. My dancers come from all different back grounds (Ballet, Parkour, Aerial) and bring with them their strengths and styles. It keeps it interesting.
How many people make up AscenDance and what are their backgrounds? How did you go about finding people to perform with?
We currently have 10 dancers. As mentioned above, they come from all different styles and backgrounds. Over the years, I’ve had several auditions. When I moved to Boulder and started the company back up in 2012, I had to start from scratch. The word spread and a lot of incredibly talented athletes showed up. Other dancers I have met randomly while handing out flyers for example. My dancer Gordon worked at a gym. He had read my article in Deadpoint Magazine and wanted to do what we did. As a strong gymnast and rock climber, it seemed right up his alley. The very next day I walked into the gym and handed him a flyer. I love how the universe works!
How long does it take to create a routine, and how do you work together as a group?
It can take anything from 2 weeks to several months. In depends on how many dancers are in the piece. The creation of the choreography is usually collaborative. I give my dancers a lot of freedom, because I want them to express themselves, not be forced to move in a certain way. What I try to do as the director, is to point out things I already see and have them develop that. Also, we listen to the piece of music together several times. I like to share the feeling and quality of movement it evokes in me. A movement can be slow like floating under water, or sharp like lightning. The tricky part in creating dance on a wall, is that we are tied to a certain grid of climbing holds. The challenge is to make it flow and let the audience forget that the holds are even there.
Do you do any specific fitness or strength/flexibility training outside of the stage?
We are all doing things most of the time. Yoga, Climbing (inside and out), Strength Training, Parkour, Circus, Tango, Salsa. All of my dancers are natural athletes and can’t sit still and they love to be on stage.
What is the ratio of female:male dancers in your group?
Currently it’s right down the middle. I try to keep it balanced. Both sides are so important in our choreography. Last year, we showcased our first all-male piece and it was a huge hit. A lot of people think is only for ‘girls’. But really what we do is for anybody who can appreciate the freedom of climbing on a wall with big holds that allow them to move freely, kick up into a handstand, hang off their toes or dyno across the entire wall.
Where have you performed so far, and how have your shows been received? What do both climbers and non-climbers think of your performance?
We have performed all over the US at festivals, corporate events and in theaters. In 2010 we made it to the Semi-Finals of America’s Got Talent. Last year we did our first international show in Singapore. When I returned I performed a solo at Chris Sharma’s new gym in Barcelona. I was touched by the people’s response. My goal is to inspire audiences to feel and it seems as though that is the effect we have. I think it is the lightness of the performance, the feeling of levitating above the ground that uplifts people. We choose our music carefully and let it guide our movement. I believe this evokes feelings in others as well. It’s a beautiful way to connect and I think that is what we are here to do.
You teach your art in classes – what do people gain from these?
AscenDance Project integrates the technical precision and strength of rock climbing with expressive movement and music to create a new kind of aerial performance on a vertical stage. In a dance-climb fusion class you will experience climbing in a new way – we work with vertical aerobics, core strength, coordination, sustained flow, dance-climb aesthetics, aerial tricks and choreographed sequences. The class is accessible to individuals without previous climbing experience and offers a playful and safe environment to cultivate trust through partner work.
Why do you personally enjoy the fusion of climbing, music and dance?
Because I get to combine all the things I love. Music runs through my veins, and dance is my way to express. The climbing wall adds a whole new dimension. It’s exciting. Making climbing look effortless takes core and flexibility. To me, climbing is just beautiful.
Do you think this type of performance could become popular globally, perhaps as a form of exercise in a similar vein to Zumba or pole-dancing?
Yes, I think it has that potential. People have experimented with choreographing climbing in different places. Perhaps it will become more popular. AscenDance was my vision, but it has a life of its own. I am happy to be part of it, and hope that it will continue long after me.
What’s next for AscenDance, and where do you hope to take it?
We are currently setting up our new studio in Boulder, CO. I am really looking forward to having a new home for our climbing wall and being able to continue the adventure of creating new stuff. I enjoy rehearsing with my dancers so much. We are planning on performing locally, until the next opportunity arises to travel. There is a chance we might go to Europe next year.