X-Treme Dance, Part 2

June 11, 2008

Roller skating, jumping rope and stilt walking have become elements in dance productions as a growing number of choreographers are invigorating their artistry with alternative forms of movement and as uniquely specialized troupes are springing up around the world. In the second of a two-part series on extreme dance, DS explores the ways that exciting new artforms are being created by combining a dance aesthetic with unusual, fun ways of moving and creating.


High Art

Most dancers dream of having legs as long as Suzanne Farrell’s or Cyd Charisse’s (whose legs were insured for $5 million in 1952). For stilt dancers, however, seven-foot “legs” are not unusual. Dancing on stilts has come a long way from the lumbering Mother Ginger of countless Nutcracker productions. Today, choreographers are using stilts for the unique movement possibilities, rather than for comical effect or additional height.


Getting used to working on stilts can be a challenge, especially for dancers who are accustomed to having complete control of the way their bodies move. “Don’t use your dance training when you start out,” advises Robert Faulkner, managing director of The SwizzleStick Theatre, a stilt dance troupe based in Toronto. “You have to be prepared to lose control in the beginning and not panic because your feet have left the ground. Dancers have been my best and worst students. Best, because once they get it, they can move in such beautiful ways. Worst, because they resent the sense of loss of control they get when they first go up on stilts, and try so hard to fight it that some never let themselves adjust.”


Stilts can range in height from one and a half feet to the world record of 40 feet, 10.25 inches. There’s a wide range in the type of apparatus, from SwizzleStick’s hands-free, pine-and- fiberglass stilts that attach at the foot and provide support up to the knee, to complex versions that have a “foot” on the bottom that is maneuvered like a human foot through springs.


Students learn on low stilts, gradually working their way up to greater heights, and start with a basic movement vocabulary until the stilts feel like a natural extension of the leg. (The challenge can be in staying still.) “You’ve lost a certain amount of connection with the ground,” says Faulkner, who notes that properly designed stilts and bindings are crucial. “Once you’re used to it, it feels very natural, and it’s very safe. But it’s a different sensation. It’s almost like flying; it’s very freeing.”


Creating works on stilts involves an open mind and a willingness to try different kinds of movement than what is typically done on the ground. “Choreographically speaking, it makes sense to ‘listen’ to the stilts and work with their natural motion,” says Faulkner. “This gives you a lot of interesting movement ideas. Stilts turn on a dime. Because they have weight and inertia, they’re great for slow motion movement. You can exploit the struggle for balance, too.”


In working with a host of different dancemakers and dancers, SwizzleStick has developed its own style of movement, which it uses in creating sophisticated theatrical works. “SwizzleStick’s whole purpose is to integrate the stilt in the performance, be it dance, drama or spectacle,” says Faulkner. “It’s not a trick, a prop or a special effect.  Stilts have a movement vocabulary all of their own. Once you learn that vocabulary, it will take you to exciting new places.”


Rope Tricks

Skipping rope has come a long way from the rhythmic slap of the rope hitting the asphalt in the childhood game. Rope dance troupes are creating high-energy performances that entertain and captivate audiences as much for the artistry as for the extreme physicality and mesmerizing intensity of the spinning rope. Rope dance has been turning up in such divergent places as the work of German avant-garde dancemaker Pina Bausch and at Hollywood parties.


“We describe what we do as MTV with a jump rope,” says Marty Winkler, president and co-owner of RopeSport, a Burbank, California–based fitness and entertainment company. “Basically it’s adding dance moves from grand jetés to pirouettes with a funky style to jumping.” In addition to jumping within the ropes, dancers can move while turning the ropes to the sides of their bodies, allowing for more variations in choreography.


The physicality and coordination involved in staying in time with the rope while executing complex moves makes for visually compelling works. RopeSport has performed everywhere from NBA halftime shows and TV shows such as “Today” to private events such as Barbra Streisand’s 50th birthday and Michael Jordan’s Space Jam party. “Most people have only seen a few moves with a jump rope,” says Winkler. “They are amazed when they see the huge variety of moves even at the beginning level of rope dance.”


Rope dance is so infectious that some troupes, such as San Francisco–based Double Dutchess, have trouble with audience members trying to join in during shows at festivals, fairs and clubs. The professional company performs “double dutch,” which comprises two rope turners and two jumpers within the two ropes. Their quirkiness and style belies the intense physicality and precision required to keep the group in sync. “You really have to learn to move together; there’s lots of timing involved,” says Double Dutchess dancer Valerie Hurysz. “Since we’ve worked together so long, there’s an unspoken rhythm between all of us. If one person is off, nothing really works.”


Ropes are made of cotton, leather, polyethylene or vinyl, with a wide variety of handle materials and lengths. Some ropes are covered with plastic beads to stop the rope from getting tangled and others are designed specifically for speed. Double dutch ropes are generally 12 to 16 feet long, but can extend up to 36 feet.


Double Dutchess uses 14-foot ropes, which forces the dancers to be choosy about performance venues. “We twirl the ropes really high and we move around a lot,” explains Double Dutchess’ Kate Hupp. “We’ve been asked to do a lot of shows. In the beginning we took all offers, but if a space isn’t really right for us, the show doesn’t go off very well. Because there isn’t really a circuit for what we’re doing, we have to forge our own path and find unique ways to perform.”


Reinventing the Wheel

Imagine stepping into an arabesque and with one move, sweeping all the way across the stage. Roller dancers can do just that as well as a host of other intricate moves in an artform that is spinning to dizzying new heights. “If a dancer puts one foot in front of the other, he’s two feet further. A skater can go on and on and on,” explains Marco Gerris, artistic director of ISH, a multidisciplinary skate company based in Amsterdam.


Modern-day roller dance troupes blend artistry with the extreme physicality made possible by the latest skate technology. ISH incorporates breakdance, hip hop, martial arts, acrobatics and half-pipe skating into high-energy theatrical productions. “For me, the challenge is to make an artform from a trick,” says Gerris. “Skating, as well as theater, gives me the feeling of freedom. And I’ve noticed that [skating] gives a totally different dimension in


ISH uses different skates depending on the demands of the show: Urban skates have bigger wheels to provide more grip for doing tricks, quads provide flexibility for dancing and aggressive skates have small wheels and grind plates to protect the frame in the half-pipe. With such flexibility, one of the only movement limitations to roller dance is the difficulty of staying in one place.


Increasingly popular for roller dance are inline skates configured like figure skates. The brake is on the front (like a figure skate’s toe pick) and the wheels are rockered, simulating an ice skate’s edge. “You have all the range of movement of ice skates,” says Rosanna Tovi, director of Skate FX, a roller dance troupe based in New York City. “You can basically do everything you can do on the ice on inline skates.”


Tovi and Andrei Bannikov, former champion ice skaters, bring their experience to roller dance with works that start from the vocabulary of ice skating and incorporate breakdancing, aerial dance and acrobatics as well as multimedia effects. “We try to collaborate and make a new kind of movement that is totally cutting edge,” says Tovi. “With the speed and motion of gliding, there are so many avenues that haven’t been touched.”


Tovi and Bannikov perform as an adagio team. “We do all kinds of crazy one-handed, gravity-defying lifts that are based on [centripetal] force,” Tovi says. Such are the moves that make up the World Roller Figure Skating Championships, an international competition founded in 1947, similar to ice skating with required elements and short and long programs. With roller sports in consideration for inclusion in the 2012 Olympics summer games, roller dance may be on its way to a surge in popularity.