SPEAK By Isabel Von Rittberg

By Isabel Jessica von Rittberg


I grew up in Wuppertal, Germany, home of Pina Bausch. As a girl I took ballet lessons with one of her dancers, also a close friend of my mother’s. Summers were spent in Montana with my grandparents. As soon as I could crawl onto the stool, I began playing the piano and realized early on that music moved me emotionally and physically. I remember falling asleep at the top of the stairs while listening to my older brother playing the piano late at night. Life has a soundtrack; deep inside we know which one.

At nineteen I decided to move to the States and graduated from UCSB with a Bachelor’s in Latin American Studies and French. By then, rock climbing had become my main passion and the occasional Salsa and Hip Hop outings quenched my thirst for dance.

After my senior year I drove through Utah’s stunning Virgin River Gorge on my way to Montana. As the early evening sunlight was reflecting on the red sandstone cliffs surrounding me, music by Thomas Otten was vibrating within my heart. Forehead glued against the windshield, I was enjoying imaginary bodies dancing on the immense vertical terrain around me. It was a vision and did not emerge from thought, definition, label or word. My mind went still and space expanded. At this point of my life, I had never heard of Project Bandaloop or Vincent Rebours. I had a standing offer to continue research for my department as a graduate student. Even though my next step didn’t make sense, it was clear to me: I wanted to pursue this vision and convey the magnificence, grace and fluidity of climbers’ delicate and strong movement.

One year later I found myself living in my van outside the climbing gym in Berkeley looking for a warehouse space where I could build a climbing wall to dance on. I had no idea what I was doing, neither did my parents. All I knew is that I needed to follow a dream.

When I climb, the continuous flow of movement, strong mental focus and strength allow me to gracefully overcome gravity. Once I built my own wall, I was able to combine my passion for climbing, music and dance.

To me ‘dance’ is just another word, a guide, a thing we give meaning to, based on our understanding. The true experience of dance happens in a deep and honest place. Moving and watching movement quiets my mind and brings me into the present moment. I don’t have elaborate stories I wish to tell. I just want to move. Of course every dancer tells a story, but for me, it is a personal one that is born from the music and its effects on me.

Since the founding of my company, AscenDance Project, in 2006, I have been blessed with incredible dancers from all different backgrounds and we all share a rock climbing obsession. The group has developed a movement vocabulary that goes beyond the technique which serves us to climb hard routes. We are pushing into new terrain and each dancer brings their own set of skills to the table. What we do requires strength that comes from hours of training and torn up calluses inside our hands. Though every foot and hand placement has to be perfect and precise, the possibilities seem infinite.

Are we dancers? Are we climbers? This is not my worry. I know what moves me. If our performance resonates with you, enjoy. If it doesn’t, pass. But do we have to categorize? Knowing the world through labels and definitions allows us to remain in our comfort zone. It reinforces separation and strengthens the ego. Dance-Climb Fusion? Does it matter? Last summer Donald K. Atwood, writer for worlddancereviews.com, interviewed me and reviewed our performance at Colorado University. I truly appreciated his observation that we used the wall as a vertical dance floor and are developing an entirely new dance vocabulary for it. According to Donald K. Atwood, AscenDance Project provided an art form in and of itself. What really made me feel understood were the following words: “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.” What we do is deeply rooted in our rock climbing expertise, the music we choose and how it moves us.

After having performed for events such as the San Francisco International Arts Festival 2008 and the Boulder Aerial Dance Festival 2009, we are now presenting our first home season at the Ashby Stage, a theater a few minutes from my house. I feel genuinely excited to finally show my neighborhood what we have been working on so intensively for the past four years.

Performance: March 5-6 and 12-14, Ashby Stage, Berkeley ascendanceproject.com

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.