Ascendance on NBC Live
On Tuesday, August 24th, Touchstone abs class teacher, Isabelle Rittberg, and Ryan "Skippy" Gaunt were contenders in America's Got Talent, a live talent show aired on NBC. The contest involved a number of different acts with winners decided by voting from viewers.
The pair performed their routing called Ascendance by dancing over a vertical to overhanging artificial climbing wall. Isabelle took a moment to talk about Ascendance, the Berkeley based dance company, and their involvement with climbing. How did Ascendance start?
I was driving through Utah's stunning Virgin River Gorge on my way from California to Montana, when the early evening sunlight was reflecting on the red sandstone cliffs surrounding me. Infatuated with the melodies of Thomas Otten, grasping onto the steering wheel with my forehead glued against the windshield, I was enjoying imaginary bodies dancing on the immense vertical terrain around me. For the first time, I felt the immediate connection of my strong passions for climbing, music and dance. It became my mission to convey the magnificence, grace and fluidity of a climber's delicate and strong movement. In 2005 I moved to the bay area and lived in my van for several months before I found a somewhat affordable warehouse space where I could build my first climbing wall. The wall filled my whole space and I basically was able to get out of bed and climb my wall all the way over to my kitchen. A few climbers got excited and started experimenting with creating movement routines on this wall and my first performance was in that space with 30 people crammed in my living room as they watched us dance on the wall 3 ft away :)
How does rock climbing affect Ascendance? How did they affect each other?
A climber's body moves through different positions when traveling across the wall. Technical movements like drop-knees, heel-hooks, toe-hooks, dynos, lock-offs, straight-arm hangs, high-steps etc. help climbers move with ease and grace. Using their strength most efficiently they seem to be smooth and rapid without effort. This is where I see the dance. It’s beautiful and captivating to watch a technically strong climber.
When rock climbing, it is the continuous flow of movements that generate in me a strong mental focus that allow me to gracefully overcome gravity. My vision of climbers executing technical and powerful movements to music was clear and strong when I first had the vision. Execution though is a bit harder: training for AscenDance definitely take a toll on our strength and endurance left for climbing. However, cross training is possible and often we find that balance. That’s what the dancing actually makes us strong climbers because our endurance is crazy strong and our core as well. It’s only right before a show that we have to climb less and focus more on rehearsals. During that time I often just do finger board work outs so that I don’t lose my finger strength. That way when we get back to it, it doesn’t really take that much time to be back in climbing shape. For me, AscenDance has allowed me to also become a more creative climber with a great flexibility in my mind and body. When you get used to hanging off your toes you start becoming much more creative in finding resting positions etc.
Where do you see Ascendance going in the future?
I have NO CLUE right now. Crazy, hugh? But life can really be like that, you just have to ride the wave. We may end up in Vegas in which case I would be super psyched because I LOVE the climbing down there and being able to do what I love full time (dance and climb) would be a dream come true :)
What's the creative process of choreographing a dance like?
It can be beautiful and also exasperating. For me the inspiration always comes from music. I grew up playing the piano; I was surrounded by music since the day I was born. I would fall asleep on the top of the stairs listening to my brother play late at night. I was introduced to dance later in life, and then finally in college I started climbing. Music is was inspired me to begin AscenDance and so the process remains the same: I am literally moved my music and that’s where it all begins. There can be days that I am in the studio alone or with other dancers and the movement sequences just flow together, things connect, it all makes sense. There are times we stare at the wall and wait for it to tell us what to do :) those are the challenging times. Often I will have visions of sequences in my head. When I get to the studio I communicate these to my dancers and they are able to translate them in their own individual style. I love that process. I also really enjoy working with Skippy. On good days we can go in and bust out a whole peace in a day if we want. That obviously doesn’t happen all the time. I still love spending time on the wall alone. It brings me back to my essence and the pure vision I had. It allows me to tap into something deep and simple. It allows me to feel, rather than to judge or feel judged because nobody is giving feed-back, nobody is watching, not evening myself. Creating solos can be so beautiful for that reason. It’s your pick of music, your interpretation, your pace and your schedule.
How do you train for your dancing?
Pull-ups, Core Strength, lots of work on the pull up bar and ultimately training on our climbing wall (campusing, one-arm hanging and swinging, double toe-hooks, dynos, etc.) Often it’ just trying out completely new movement and seeing what needs to happen in order to execute. Skippy is definitely the trail-blazer on that.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
THANK YOU for all the support. The climbing community has been so supportive and excited for us and we really feel that love and appreciation so much. It’s so nice to come home to that after an exhausting week with in Hollywood