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Project Bandaloop takes dance to new heights — literally

September 24, 2010

The Bay Area troupe performs on the sides of buildings, cliff faces and other vertically challenging spots. The dancers are coming to Orange County Performing Arts Center.

On most days, the wall at 2201 Broadway that overlooks a downtown parking lot on the corner of Grand Avenue and Broadway draws little attention from passersby. But during the last couple of months, people have stopped in their tracks to gaze up at the hundred-foot-tall, cream-colored façade as dancers suspended from thin climbing ropes rappel down its surface in formation, stopping every now and again to execute slow-motion pirouettes, somersaults and jetés in flouncy mesh underskirts. The performers fly so high above the ground that onlookers have to crane their necks and shade their eyes to see them. Yet their fluid, gravity-defying moves make them look like sea anemones dancing on the ocean floor.

The normally innocuous wall has lately become the site of much activity during rehearsals of Project Bandaloop, a Bay Area-based dance company that seeks its inspiration from rock climbing to create performances on the sides of buildings, cliff faces and other stratospheric surfaces around the globe. Dancers move across the vertical space to recorded music. Riggers stand at the top of the building, making sure the performers are safely strapped into their harnesses and ropes. Sitting in a low-slung deck chair in the parking lot below with a sound system at her feet, a microphone in her right hand and a walkie-talkie in her left, artistic director Amelia Rudolph divides her time between discussing staging details with her design and technical crew and issuing directions to the dancers and riggers above. "Can you hear me?" she says into the microphone to a solo performer suspended halfway up the wall. "Does it help if I add reverb? Can you hear me now?"

Toward the end of the month, the wall will be restored to its usual state of blankness when Project Bandaloop temporarily transfers its operations to another surface of similarly epic dimensions — the pinkish façade of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. There, for three free performances Thursday to Saturday, the company will perform the world premiere of "IdEgo," a piece commissioned by OCPAC to launch its new season. Project Bandaloop will also perform a revised work from its repertoire titled "The Ninth Second."

Choreographed by Rudolph, "IdEgo," which draws its title from Sigmund Freud's description of the human psyche, examines the relationship between the individual and the community through the interplay of vertical dance, video, spoken and sung text, lighting effects, set design and music. Rudolph, 46, has explored similar thematic terrain in previous works, such as "The Intimacy of Spectacle," a piece that Project Bandaloop performed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art last summer. But this new work is more ambitiously theatrical and technical in scope than any of its outdoor work to date. The score, composed by electro-jazz cellist and trombonist Dana Leong, will be performed live, with the composer sometimes playing his trombone from an abstract sculptured set piece attached to the wall. The members of the six-strong dance company will sing and speak — something that Project Bandaloop has never attempted before on this scale — as well as interact with larger-than-life live video projections of their faces and bodies moving in space.

Although the company sometimes performs in conventional theaters, Project Bandaloop's site-specific output — the work for which it is best known — takes place in much larger outdoor environments, many of them natural. The ensemble has made pieces on Yosemite's El Capitan, a Norwegian fjord, a rock face in the Italian Dolomites and the wall of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York (for a 2005 appearance on David Letterman's show).

Involving a wall measuring roughly 100 feet in breadth and height, "IdEgo" is no exception to the trend. But Rudolph hopes that the use of text and the video close-ups will give this new piece a powerful sense of closeness. "Because our work is often presented above people's heads in the sky, it has a certain grandeur about it," Rudolph said. "With this production, I want to get close to the dancers to generate moments of intimacy. I want the audience to see the dancers as people, not just tiny bodies dangling from the top of a building."

The upcoming performances represent Project Bandaloop's second visit to Orange County. The first came in 2007 as part of a dance festival.

"It was extraordinary to stand on the plaza and watch the dancers. They looked like they were flying off the walls of Segerstrom Hall," Judy Morr, executive director of OCPAC, said of Project Bandaloop's first appearance. "As soon as I saw them perform here two years ago, I knew we should commission them to create a new work just for our wall."

Project Bandaloop's output differs greatly from OCPAC's standard fare. The organization typically hosts such world-class classical troupes as the Bolshoi and Royal Danish ballet companies on the proscenium stage of Segerstrom Hall's 3,000-seat theater. Al fresco aerial dance performances are well beyond the presenting organization's usual purview. Nevertheless, Morr hopes to attract an audience of about 5,000 to see the work each night, which, unlike most other shows at the center, will be free to the public. "We felt it was important to have an event that celebrated the plaza and the beauty of live performance outdoors," Morr said.

Aerial dance has its roots in experiments undertaken by such renowned rock climbers as Antoine le Menestrel in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, the art form has a particularly strong following in Northern California, owing in part to the proximity of the Sierras and the pervasive spirit of environmentalism. The region is home to such companies as Zaccho Dance Theatre, Capacitor, AscenDance and Flyaway Productions. Project Bandaloop, which Rudolph founded in 1991 as an extension of her background in classical dance, interest in ritual (the choreographer studied comparative religion alongside dance at university) and passion for rock climbing, a sport that she took up in the Sierras in 1989, is among the most established aerial dance ensembles in the world. "The movement investigation, integration of environment and our place in it as human beings, scale of the work, and the fundamental questions posed by it, are profound," said Diane Frank, a dance professor at Stanford University, of Project Bandaloop. "This could not have unfolded anywhere else but the West."

OCPAC may not be as dramatic a setting for Project Bandaloop's work as some of the natural landmarks where the group has performed. But the dancers are looking forward to returning to Orange County nonetheless. "I'm excited about that big, clean wall with its pale pink surface," said Rachel Lincoln, who has danced with Project Bandaloop for 12 years and makes her home in Venice. "It's an amazing canvas for what we're doing. It's an open stage."


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