In an alcove at the base of El Capitan's Wall of Early Morning Light, approximately 500 feet above California's Yosemite Valley, two figures in white, wearing harnesses clipped to safety ropes, were crouched against a rock slab. As a warm midday breeze rustled the trees below, the figures began to move in unison. They contracted and released their bodies, arching against the granite wall, their shadows dancing with them. One dancer and then the other pushed away from the rock, leaping, lunging, twirling and flipping over and around each other, gaining 15 feet of air and ample hang time with each maneuver.
Meanwhile, to one side of the alcove, four more dancers harnessed to ropes anchored at a point 150 feet farther up the wall took turns leaping into space. They performed arabesques and flips and aerials, spinning head over heels through the air like pinwheels in the wind.
These high-flying routines were the work of Project Bandaloop, a group of dancers and rock climbers who combine climbing techniques with movements from dance and gymnastics. This performance, done last June, was commissioned by PBS as part of The Web of Life, a two-hour special celebrating biodiversity that will air this month. Bandaloop, whose name is drawn from Tom Robbins's novel Jitterbug Perfume, is based in Oakland and is the brainchild of Amelia Rudolph, 31, the company's director. "I want to explore the boundaries of what is possible for the human body to do in space," Rudolph says. "My whole motivation is to put myself in a situation in which I don't know what's going to happen."
Dancing and rock climbing are a natural combination, Rudolph says, because they both require strength, flexibility, coordination, agility and concentration. In vertical dance, however, performers must also contend with gravity in new ways. "It does not work the same as when you're on a horizontal plane," says Kimm E. Ward, 34, a Bandaloop dancer. "In some ways it's extremely liberating, but there are also some uncomfortable moments as you're hanging upside down from a rope."
Aside from the choreographic challenges, Bandaloop is primarily concerned with technical and safety issues. Preparing for an outdoor performance requires several days. It often takes an experienced climber several hours just to make the ascent to the performance area; then special care must be given to setting up rigging mechanisms, making sure the wedges and camming devices (spring-loaded anchors) can withstand the stress the dancers put on them. At the other end of the ropes, the knots on the performers' harnesses are double-and triple-checked. Bandaloop's Peter Mayfield, 32, a onetime alternate on the U.S. climbing team (1989) and the founder of City-Rock, an indoor climbing center in Emeryville, Calif., often either sets the dancers' anchors and ties the knots or checks those tied by others.
Dancing on rock faces is still relatively new to the troupe's members, including Rudolph. But in her case, at least, the seeds were planted early in life. Rudolph was born to political scientists with a specialty in the political economy of India, and as a child she lived for six years in India, where she studied classical Indian dance and music. After returning to the U.S. she trained in modern dance, ballet and gymnastics. Rudolph graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and earned her master's degree in comparative Asian religions from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
In 1989 she took up climbing at the urging of a friend, George McKinley, who took her to Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows. Later, while bouldering (climbing near the ground without ropes) at Berkeley's Indian Rock, she was struck by the similarities between rock climbing and dance. "I was going sideways, traversing the rock, and instead-of paying attention to trying to stay on, I started paying attention to where my center was and to the fluidity of my motion," she recalls. "That made it a lot easier. The quality of the movement had almost as much to do with my ability to stay on as did the strength of my hands and my determination."
Drawing on the parallels among rock climbing, dance, gymnastics, tai chi and contact improv (an improvisational form of dance and aikido developed in the 1970s), Rudolph brought together a few dancers she had worked with in school and began rehearsing at CityRock for Bandaloop's first vertical dance show. One morning while the group was dancing on the wall, Rudolph recalls, " Hans Florine, who at the time was the world speed-climbing champion, walked into our rehearsal and said, 'Can I try?' "
A few days later Florine's friend Steve Schneider, also a nationally ranked climber, followed suit. "I had seen vertical dance in Europe, and it looked fun," says Schneider, 34. He placed fourth in a national difficulty-climbing competition at Snowbird, Utah, in 1990 and was fifth in 1991, and he sets routes for national competitions. Yet he was surprised at the pressure he felt performing with Bandaloop. "In a climbing competition, if I blow it I can always try again or enter another competition," he says. "But in vertical dance you have to do things within a certain time period. Other people are depending on you. I didn't realize what I was getting into."
Bandaloop's first performance, at City-Rock in 1991, was sold out, as were subsequent shows in the Bay Area. The troupe now performs several times a year, outdoors and indoors.