Bandaloop has danced its way across many of the world’s most famous peaks: Italy’s Dolomites, India’s Himalayas, and China’s Tianmen Mountain. The Oakland group — which performs a distinctive style of vertical dance — loves dancing outdoors, the challenge of using jagged cliffs as its stage. It stems from the group’s origin story: Founder Amelia Rudolph started Bandaloop to marry her passions for dancing and rock climbing in the Sierra Nevada. But as the group has grown over more than 20 years of performances, it has broadened its scope, to not just bring dance into nature but to bring the work to the general public and local residents.
“What it’s evolved to be is much more about bringing dance to communities and public spaces,” said Rudolph. “While we still dance in the mountains almost every year, our work has evolved into being more about sharing dance in a different way than it is traditionally shared in its theatrical setting, which can be a little bit cloistered or possibly even elitist. There’s this public sharing of the art form.”
Rudolph started Bandaloop in 1991. She had a dance background (she wrote a thesis on dance as a spiritual ritual during her time at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union) but was drawn to the different type of grace and movement rock climbing required. She created what would be become Bandaloop, with early performances taking place sans permits at Yosemite National Park. At first, some didn’t know what to make of the group. For one performance at Seattle’s Bumbershoot music festival in the 1990s, it took six months of wrangling with insurers, police, and lawyers before Bandaloop won permission to perform on the Space Needle.
Things got easier as the group’s renown grew. Bandaloop has toured the world courtesy of the U.S. State Department, performed at UNESCO heritage sites in Saudi Arabia and India, and last fall, shared a stage with the pop star Pink at the American Music Awards.
Once Bandaloop lands a job, the group’s members spend time studying the building, hammering out safety requirements, and making sure the audience can see them from the ground. Then, the dancers meet at their warehouse in West Oakland to rehearse and adapt their choreography to their new stage. They practice on a variety of surfaces: a soft wall, a hard wall, and a rock climbing wall, all around 30 feet high. Once they’re almost ready, final rehearses take place on the Great Wall of Oakland downtown. A few days or so before the show, they’ll go to their venue to familiarize themselves with the space — it’s surprisingly difficult to navigate the dark, labyrinthine tops of skyscrapers, Rudolph said.
Bandaloop’s dancers can be hard to find, as the company requires a particular physicality. Performers need to be gifted dancers (most come from a modern dance background) but also have to learn an entirely new sense of orientation and how to rely on their core to hold them in place while still making their movements look soft and graceful.
“You have to have a hunger for it, a willingness to really work and strengthen the core. But once people are in the harness and doing the work, it’s fun, so the work doesn’t feel like work,” said Melecio Estrella, Bandaloop’s assistant artistic director. “It really feels like play.”
Members of the troupe chafe at people who describe their work as thrill-seeking. “Some see this as daredevil or superhuman, but what surprises me is how kind of soft, kind, and gentle the people are in order to do the work,” Estrella said. “There’s a real friendliness and at the same time a seriousness about the safety aspect that requires us to be really honest and kind with each other. It’s not like we’re these badasses who are just daredevils, but we’re calculating risk, we’re talking to each other from the heart.”
While Rudolph still dances at some of the group’s performances, she’s scaled back as she’s found herself pondering deeper questions of community engagement and access. In addition to free rehearsal performances around Oakland, the group has open studio days where people — after signing a waiver — can try their hand at bandalooping for free. The group also has partnerships with local schools and organizations. Troupe members are also taking a “cultural humility” workshop to interrogate what Rudolph calls their “white privilege-slash-artsy-upper-middle-class influences and how we can be more aware of structural racism and our own privilege.”
She’s committed to expanding their reach because she still believes what she wrote about in her thesis years ago, about the transformative power of dance. “I think that the power of art and imagination can change the world,” she said. “We shouldn’t in any way set up barriers as a dance field to sharing the experience of our kind of art with people.”
This report was originally published by our sister publication, Oakland Magazine.