Conquering a Vertical Stage

By Beacon Staff

Isabel von Rittberg was on a road trip from California to Montana when she had the idea to start a combined dancing and climbing performance. As she watched the sunlight reflect off sandstone cliffs in Utah’s Virgin River Gorge and listened to music in her car, she imagined bodies dancing across the vertical terrain around her.

“For the first time, I felt the immediate connection of my strong passions for climbing, music and dance,” she said.

When she got to Montana, the German-born climbing enthusiast told her family she’d had a vision and was going to develop a show that melded the strength of climbing with the aesthetic beauty of dance. “We were dumbfounded,” Isabel’s mother Gretchen von Rittberg, a part-time Bigfork resident and Glendive, Mont. native, said. “But we know our daughter very well and know that if she has decided on something and got it in her head she’s going to go through with it no matter if we like it or not.”

Members of AscenDance perform in their warehouse studio. – Photo courtesy of AscenDance, Benoit Robitaille photographer

Two years later, von Rittberg’s AscenDance Project boasts eight dancers and recently completed its biggest performance to date – an invitation-only spot in the San Francisco International Arts Festival. But this weekend, the four dancers will perform at a much smaller venue, though one with special importance for von Rittberg: the Bigfork Festival of the Arts.

“My main inspiration (for bringing the show to Bigfork) was to find a way for my grandmother to see the performance, and she’s definitely at the point in her life where she can’t travel,” von Rittberg said. “The only way to do it was to bring it home to her. I was going to find a way even if it had to set it up in her backyard.”

Von Rittberg’s grandparents are long time Bigfork residents Betty Wetzel and the late Winston Wetzel, a former Whitefish school superintendent. During her childhood, von Rittberg would travel every year from her parent’s home in Germany to spend her summers in Bigfork with her grandparents.

“We’re very close; she sort of raised me as a child,” von Rittberg said. “She’s always been so supportive of my endeavors, including this.”

AscenDance Project integrates the technical precision and strength of climbing with expressive movement and music to create a new kind of aerial performance on a vertical stage. The group’s climbers move in time with music along a transportable 24-foot-wide and 12-foot-tall wall, their muscles flexing as they gracefully contort and climb in unison.

Isabel Jessica von Rittberg, director of the AscenDance project, performs on a large custom-built climbing wall during a series of free public shows in downtown San Francisco’s Union Square Park. – Photo courtesy of AscenDance, Muhammad Asranur photographer

Von Rittberg compares the combination of art and sport to synchronized swimming: “There’s always rhythm in any type of movement, whether you’re dancing, climbing or just walking down the street. This brings out the artistic side of what’s already part of the sport.”

Four dancers, including von Rittberg and her fiancée Ryan Gaunt, will perform Levitate, one of the group’s choreographed shows, as part of the Bigfork festival on Aug. 2 at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. and on Aug. 3 at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The climbing wall will be located in front of Brookie’s Cookies on Electric Avenue. The performances are free to the public, but donations are encouraged to help cover the costs of bringing the wall and performers up from California.

In its 30th year, the Bigfork Festival of Arts has become a summer tradition for thousands of people in the Northwest. AscenDance Project will be one of about 130 booths representing a wide variety of arts and crafts by nationally and internationally recognized artists and craftsmen. Festival attendance for the weekend is estimated to reach more than 6,000.

It’s an opportunity, organizers say, for locals and visitors to be exposed to art forms they may otherwise never get the chance to see. Von Rittberg hopes her unique performance will surprise and please not just her grandmother, but also the community where she spent much of her younger years.

“Bringing the project to Bigfork, I think, is a great way to show it to other people,” she said. “Something like this has never been done here before.”