This Choreographer Makes Dances in the Air (and on Cliffs, Skyscrapers, Bridges, Billboards)

Photo by Atossa Saltani, courtesy of BANDALOOP

Amelia Rudolph was a longtime dancer, but a relative newcomer to rock climbing when she had an epiphany on a cliff in the breathtaking Sierra Nevada mountains. "There's granite and crystal and quartz—it's like a sculpture that you're climbing on," she says. "I had a moment where I was like, 'Could you dance here? What would that look like? Could anybody even see? Would that matter?'" The answer, of course, is yes. BANDALOOP, the Oakland, California–based vertical-dance company Rudolph founded as a result of that lightbulb moment has, for more than 25 years, donned climbing gear and performed on skyscrapers, bridges, billboards and historical sites, in atriums and convention halls, and in nature on cliffs—perhaps most famously, rappelling at 2,400 feet off Yosemite's El Capitan. This month, the company tours to the sprawling stone and wood-shingled Mahaney Center for the Arts in Middlebury, Vermont.

On getting permission to perform on a building "Back in 1996, when we first performed on the Space Needle [in Seattle], it took six months to get permission. Oakland City Hall is used to us now—we can probably arrange permission within a month. The average is between two and four months. Often the presenter approaches us—we'll go to a site visit, and we say: 'These buildings are the best. We like this one the most, and this is a backup.' I think it's important people have stringent standards. I really respect any building that wants to make sure we're extremely good at what we do."

Her dream venues "I'd love to do a river descent and rafting in Asia and dance on the cliffs along the way. I'd love to cross from China to India across the mountains. It's adventure art. There are some waterfalls in South America and Africa I would like to dance near or in. I've done a couple of Frank Gehry buildings, but I would love to honor a woman architect."

Her process "I certainly imagine the shape of dances, but the actual phrases and detailed movements happen in so many ways. I work very collaboratively with my dancers. I'll give them a set of constraints for an improvisation score, and we'll film it. We often start on the ground. We'll do writing, generating a palette of ideas. My job ultimately is to craft, edit and carve all of that into a cohesive piece."

Courtesy Meg Brooker

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Justin Boccitto teaches a hybrid class. Photo courtesy Boccitto

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All photos by Ryan Heffington

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Ryan Heffington is kneeling in front of his iPhone, looking directly into the camera, smiling behind his bushy mustache. He's in his house in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, phone propped on the floor so it stays steady, his bright shorty shorts, tank top and multiple necklaces in full view. Music is already playing—imagine you're at a club—and soon he's swaying and bouncing from side to side, the beat infusing his bones.

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