Bay Area-based Bandaloop isn’t the first dance company to fly unfettered, but it has its own graceful, forged-in-California style. The company flies off the face of the newly rennovated Wisconsin Union Theater four times (Fri., 4:30 and 6:45 PM; Sat. 4:30 PM and 7 PM, Union Terrace) during the eleventh annual Madison World Music Festival next weekend (Sept. 12-13) – an appropriate reinauguration ritual for the rennovated campus landmark.
Dancers, of course, have always wanted to fly. The first choreographer to move dancers through the air on wires was the Frenchman Charles Didelot, who flew a nymph in the arms of a capricious breeze across the stage in his pre-Romantic, late eighteenth / early nineteenth century ballet Flore et Zephyr – a huge hit in its day. Multimedia choreographer Alwin Nikolais, who had close ties to the UW Dance Department in the 1960s, flew dancers on ropes in several of his works. Postmodern dance pioneer Trisha Brown created “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” in 1970 – a work featuring a dancer in street clothes and a climbing harness descending the vertical face of Manhattan’s original co-op loft building in SoHo, and recreated by Extreme Action Specialist Elizabeth Streb at the Whitney Museum in 2010.
Streb, who’s performed in Madison several times, often flies her dancers in aerial harnesses while defying the forces of gravity in her high-impact work. Cirque de Soliel is a literal circus of flying dancers. Bringing it all back home, Madison’s own aerial dance company, Cycropia, has been around some 25 years – they’re most famous for flying from the stately oaks in Orton Park. Madison Ballet flew its dancers once, in its production of Peter Pan at Overture's Capitol Theater in 2008.
These examples are connected only by a certain daredevil attitude amplified by aerial equipment – each has its own aesthetic, and its own approach. To find out what makes Bandaloop tick, I spoke with senior dancer Melecio Estrella last week.
Estrella’s been with the company since 2003. “I was a modern dancer and they were having auditions,” he told me. They asked me to audition, and I was lucky enough to be chosen.”
Here’s what else he had to say:
CulturalOyster: What’s the Bandaloop story?
Estrella: It was founded by Amelia Rudolph in 1992. She grew up in Chicago, where she was a dancer – she started dancing at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Then she started rock climbing, and in the mountains of Yosemite she had the idea that she should mix her two loves. She watched skilled climbers and saw what they were doing as dance. So that’s how it started.
The company’s grown and traveled the globe. We’ve performed on urban architecture and in the great outdoors, in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. We’re performed at some amazing events – for the Queen of Norway’s 50th birthday, and at the New York Stock Exchange, just to name a couple.
CulturalOyster: You have to change your choreography for every situation. How do you make your work site-specific?
Estrella: Absolutely all of our works have to be modified – each situation involves different heights, different rope lengths, different surfaces. So what we’re doing in Madison will be very unique to the Wisconsin Union Theater. We’re really excited to be there to celebrate the theater’s reopening. We do a big part of our work on-site, which is why we come five days early. At the Union Theater we’ll be on the side that faces the Terrace. We’ll be adapting our work to the height of the building, and there’s an awning [I think he means the roof overhang over the theater’s east-facing doors] we have to take into account. It takes enough rehearsal time to get it right.
CulturalOyster: How do you differ from other dance companies that use aerial gear, like, say, Elizabeth Streb’s?
Estrella: We’re very dancey on the wall – less trick-oriented than other companies. It’s not ballet, it’s all modern dance – one of our members was in the Limón Dance Company [the José Limón legacy company]; some of the others come from working with Doug Elkins and Joe Goode. What we do is cross-disciplinary – we all warm up with modern dance and bring that to the wall, but we also do a lot of yoga and Pilates to help us train – it’s very intensive core work.
CulturalOyster: What does it take to fly like you do?
Estrella: It does take a certain amount of courage. We have a very extensive safety culture and a three-check system, and we’re working with world-class riggers. When I start dancing it’s always scary – we say that fear is healthy. We love our lives, we don’t want to die! Vigilance keeps our culture of safety alive and we all take care of each other. But I know my gear is set up correctly and once my mind knows I’m safe the fear goes away.
CulturalOyster: What inspires you to do it?
Estrella: I think a love of being outside is part of it. We dance in the elements. We dance in the wind, we dance in the sun. It’s also about redefining public spaces, letting audiences see a space like they’ve never seen it before. To see the side of a building or an outdoor space in a more creative way is something we value. We also value accessibility. Most dance exists inside a theater. When we bring it outside we reach people who would never go to see dance. And homeless people on the street could never be able to afford a dance concert. They’re given a free performance by what we do.