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Meet Isabel von Rittberg of AscenDance Project in Boulder

Today we’d like to introduce you to Isabel von Rittberg.

Isabel, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in Beyenburg, a tiny village tucked away in Germany’s green rolling hills riding bareback and roaming around the woods. Summers were spent hiking Montana’s Rocky Mountains while visiting my mother’s family. As a teenager, I played the piano and danced ballet. These years laid an important groundwork and instilled in me a passion for music, dance and the mountains. When I moved to the United States to go to the University of Santa Barbara, California, I fell in love with rock climbing. It was a lot like dance. I loved feeling and watching the continuous flow of movement that allowed climbers to gracefully overcome gravity. At twenty-four, I was driving through Utah’s Virgin River Gorge at sunset. Looking at the tall, limestone walls glowing in the last light I imagined climbers moving to music. I wanted to convey this beauty and imagined starting a dance group that would embellish and synchronize rock climbing. In 2005, I moved to the Bay Area, found a small loft and began to construct a wall. A well-placed ad at local gyms sparked the interest in several climbers who would begin training with me.

After hosting a few smaller showings at our warehouse, we were invited to perform at the San Francisco International Arts Festival in 2008. That same year, I brought the entire company to Montana to perform for my Grandmother who could no longer travel but had supported me all along the way. In Bigfork, Montana exposure to the arts is not taken for granted and we filled the streets at the festival of the arts. A year later, I decided to take the leap and rent out the Ashby Stage Theater in Berkeley, California. We sold out every night. During these performances, I received a call from NBC’s America’s Got Talent to be on their show. We made it to semifinals. Performing live on national TV took AscenDance Project to new level. The exposure brought well-paid corporate events and allowed me to pursue my art.

I had fallen in love with Boulder, CO when teaching and performing at the Boulder Aerial Dance Festival in 2009. In 2011, I decided to relocate to Colorado and have truly enjoyed working with talented local performers who come from different backgrounds such as climbing, ballet, aerial dance, gymnastics and parkour. We have performed at the Chautauqua Auditorium, the Lakewood Cultural Center, the Upslope Brewing’s annual festival ‘The Get-Down’ and at the Macky Auditorium for the 2017 TEDxBoulder. This year, we are incredibly excited to present our world premier of ‘New Heights: Dancing on the Walls that Divide us’ at the Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center October 12 & 13, 2019.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The decision to start AscenDance Project, a company that would combine my biggest passions (music, dance, and climbing) came effortlessly. My vision was so strong it felt like I didn’t really have a choice. The journey, however, has not been that effortless and filled with plenty of moments of challenge and doubt. Aside from the fact that I did not have a formal background in arts management or dance, starting a business (no matter which type) is never easy and always packed with unforeseen obstacles and detours. In my case, the logistical hurdle of designing and building a climbing wall as well as finding a space that it would fit in was the first challenge. I spent over three months living in my van in Berkeley’s Touchstone climbing gym parking lot looking at warehouses and rental ads day in and day out. It would have been easy to give up right then and there, but luckily that beginning drive, strong vision and desire to share the beauty of climbing would not let me do so. I finally found a live/work loft in Oakland and Wayne Campbell, a bay area climber and wall designer, helped me build my first wall. Days were spent in his shop cutting, drilling, and welding.

The wall took over my entire space and loomed over me as a daily reminder of the decision I had made. Finding dancers was my next challenge. Since I was combining disciplines and trying something new there was no rule or recipe on how to find performers who would be interested in joining. Little by little my first troupe of dancers (most of which I found at the climbing gym) came together and we started experimenting with new movement every day. When others believe in my vision or want to be part of it, it always feels like I am on the right path and helps me overcome fear and doubt. It carries me through challenging times and uplifts this performance group to a level I could never achieve on my own. While logistics continue to present a great hurdle (every time we perform, we must move a 24ft long and 12ft high climbing wall) making a dance company financially sustainable seems to pose the greatest obstacle in taking this company to the next level. All AscenDance performers, including myself, live from outside sources of income, in order to be able to dance, create and perform. My dream of being able to pay dancers full time to go on tour, travel, teach and perform remains.

AscenDance Project – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
With AscenDance Project, I have given birth to a new genre of dance that fuses rock climbing, music, and choreography performed on a vertical wall. Without ropes or suspension, dancers use sheer strength to overcome gravity with grace, beauty and artistic prowess. We perform on both the floor and the wall and, via climbing holds, move across the vertical and horizontal planes, breaking through dimensions. Dancers’ bodies gently rise off the ground and their movement is, quite literally, uplifting. While aerial dance is certainly a mainstay in the Denver/Boulder area, AscenDance Project is the only company that fuses rock climbing and dance in this capacity. Incorporating movement styles from different disciplines such as gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and ballet allows us to push boundaries, craft innovative choreography and develop a new dance vocabulary that remains unique to Colorado.

I feel proud to have received very touching feedback from art lovers at theaters, small children on Union Square, strong athletes at climbing gyms, CEOs of corporate events, and teenagers at TEDxBoulder. Regardless where we dance, our goal is to uplift our audience and inspire them. We dance because music moves us. We perform because we want to show the beauty of climbing. We step on stage hoping that our audience feels something. They are part of the dance. Our connection with them is what creates the magic. Some walls are built to divide, ours was designed to unite.

One of the things that set us apart from other dance companies is that, though I am the Artistic Director and have visions for future performances inspired by certain pieces of music and ideas, we work as a collaborative. I give my dancers a lot of freedom to be creative and follow their own inspiration, especially when it comes to solo pieces. I want them to express themselves. Every dancer has different strengths and a body type. That is one of the aspects of AscenDance Project I truly enjoy: the diversity of movement and backgrounds. At times, I come into the studio with specific choreography in mind. Often, however, I am more looking for a general feeling or certain shapes which guide my dancers as they create choreography together as a collective, especially in group pieces. I have been told by dancers who have worked for other companies, how much they enjoy the fact that I don’t just come into the studio and “tell them what to do”. I truly enjoy working together with them as we come up with new vocabulary and movement ideas. That is the beauty of creating an entirely new genre of dance: We get to invent new sequences and name them accordingly. It’s a very fun (and of course sometimes challenging and tedious) process.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Of course, I am proud to have danced live before 16 million people on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. But success is not just a moment on stage, it’s experiencing every step and every detour that takes me there. It’s not merely a finished dance, but getting to create it and share it with others. To me, success is connecting. And touching one person’s heart is the most valuable currency I own. Some of the most gratifying moments have been performing in public places, such as Union Square in San Francisco or in front of the bakery during the Bigfork Festivals of the Arts. During these performances, we got to look down at the little faces and big eyes of kids sitting on the ground before our climbing wall with their mouths wide open. As soon as we finished, they wanted to try it themselves. Connecting with our audience is what I long for and am proud of. And unlike fame, these memories last.

Contact Info:

More photos, Prints and Downloads available at http://yannr.smugmug.com – Copyright http://YannPhotoVideo.com

Image Credit:
AscenDance Project 1: Michael Todd
AscenDance Project 2: Alea Wagner
AscenDance Project 3: Yann Ropars
AscenDance Project 4: Chuck Fryberger
AscenDance Project 5: Chuck Fryberger
AscenDance Project 7: Jivan West
AscenDance Project 8: Yann Ropars
AscenDance Project 9: Jivan West

Getting in touch: VoyageDenver is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Jan Mohler

    April 4, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    Great interview. Isabel is a strong, graceful climbing dancer, spectacular to watch! She obviously has a passion for her craft and inspires many. Wishing for you continued success. Love you Isabel, from our corner of NW Montana.

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