The Reviews Archive | World Dance Reviews


Donald K. Atwood MFA, Ph.D.

AscenDance Project Dazzles Boulder and 2009 Aerial Dance Festival Boulder, Colorado's Eleventh Annual Aerial Dance Festival (ADF) presented Oakland California's AscenDance Project in what turned out to be two concerts in the University of Colorado/Boulder's Charlotte York Irey Theater on Friday evening August 14th, 2009. The second concert resulted when it was realized that in a two week residency at ADF Ascendance Project had already captured more than a sell out audience. Festival Director Nancy Smith and AscenDance Founder/Artistic Director, Isabel Von Rittberg opted for a second show to accommodate an overflow crowd. Both audiences were thoroughly entranced with over an hour of non-stop performance that varied from adagio to explosions.

AscenDance Project performs on a huge climbing wall. That portable wall is twelve feet high and twenty four feet wide, and includes one-hundred-fifty climbing inserts, with the entire center third of the wall being an overhang set in slopes varying from about 20 to 30 degrees. It's been tried before. But not like this. Von Rittberg sees that surface as a vertical dance floor, and for it she and her dancers have developed an entirely new dance vocabulary. Not flips and tricks, and not watch-us-climb-to-music, AscenDance Project provides an art form in and of itself. That art form, because of where it is performed, we call "dance." In reality, Von Rittberg refuses to be labeled in any way by contemporary or classical dance descriptions or phrasing. Yes, you may see something you can call an arabesque, or an attitude leg, but that is your terminology - not AscenDance's. What Ascendance does do is deeply rooted in the rock climbing expertise of the dancers, in the music they choose, the way they use that music, movement invention, the amazing physical capabilities of the performers, and their and Von Rittberg's obviously extensive sense of performance, performance life, and using all of that to define a new form of performance.

The concert opened with a student showing of a work developed on them by Von Rittberg and Ryan Gaunt in just two weeks of ADF classes. The students were amazing, the work well crafted, well performed, and best described as "stunning." But, the real "stunning" was yet to come. Within four minutes of the end of that student showing Von Rittberg walked to the down left part of the wall (performers right as they face the audience) and began an adagio solo that moved slowly into all of the wall. As well chosen music selections moved non-stop five other dancers joined. Other solos, ensembles, duets - some in unison, some with canons, some with partnering - moved along and over the wall. At times movement choices brought audience gasps, at times they were subdued in an inherent beauty set in slowness. Often they took on many or all of the aspects of the music, at other times they ignored any or all of those aspects. The concert slowly built to a climax embodied in a long duet by Von Rittberg and Gaunt. That duet used the entire wall and exquisite partnering by Gaunt, in which he provided his strength and flexibility to Von Rittberg in ways that rivaled any classical pas de deux you have seen or imagined. The music moved to Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and one could not help wondering how the dancers would cope with all the expectations that music establishes - especially the one high note. Von Rittberg did not try. Instead, before that note, Gaunt, hanging from the top of the wall slowly lowered Von Rittberg's extended body to the floor; she lowered her arms, the music stopped, and the audience exploded onto its feet.

Von Rittberg has already taken this performance modality well beyond "gimmick." Instead she is in the midst of defining an art form and all the vocabulary therein. She has, in fact, created a choreographer's dream. Who could not watch this performance and not imagine what can be done with that wall and what she has invented? But beware - it is not for the faint at heart. Von Rittberg has not only invented an art form and a beginning vocabulary for it, but that art form requires incredibly strong performers to make it happen. Von Rittberg and Gaunt are well served by not only their strength and flexibility, but long lean torsos and amazingly long limbs. The torsos and limbs may not be absolutely required, but the strength and flexibility is. As is a sense of performance and a deep understanding of music - some of which comes from Von Rittberg's family including her brother, Marcus, some of whose music she used.

The ADF has already booked Ascendance Project to teach and perform in the 2010 Aerial Dance Festival. Plan now to see them.

© Copyright World Dance Reviews 2009

Gordon Graham