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Bandaloop keeps ‘fear in the passenger seat’

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Kelli March
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provided
Bandaloop is shown during a 2012 appearance in Rochester.

As the six dancers of Bandaloop, suspended from ropes alongside downtown Rochester’s 21-story Five Star Plaza, swoop and swirl in movements choreographed to music, the obvious question for Melecio Estrella is: Do you ever feel afraid?

“Uh, yeah, absolutely,” he says with an uneasy laugh. “In the best way. We definitely don’t think that we’re fearless, and we know that our fear points us toward vigilance for our own safety.

“We like to say we keep fear in the passenger seat.”

Buckle up. Based in Oakland, California, Bandaloop was a part of the first two Rochester Fringe Festivals. It returns for the event’s 11th year, with two shows each on Friday and Saturday on the side of Five Star Plaza. The shows are free, and easily visible from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

Bandaloop has been swinging for 31 years, and Estrella has been with the group for 20 of them. First as a dancer, now as its artistic director. And every now and then, Estrella himself will still get back out on the dance floor (the dance wall?).

What kind of person wants to glide across the face of a tall building with just a rope separating him, or her, from the pavement below?

“People are knocking down our doors,” Estrella jokes.

But there’s a simple answer.

“Education overcomes the fear.”

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Education, as in understanding the technical aspects of how Bandaloop works. There are six dancers – with a second troupe of six available – accompanied by a group of professional riggers. Pros in industrial, theatrical and even mountaineering rigging. A recent show at BMW’s headquarters brought 26 people to Munich, including dancers and technical and production staff.

Bandaloop has been in Rochester since Monday. Readying the rigging. And practicing, if you’ve been wondering why humans are crawling up and down the walls of Five Star Plaza.

Each gig presents different challenges, whether it’s a 120-foot building in Oakland or the 300-plus feet of Five Star Plaza.

“The fact that it’s taller means the dancers are farther away from the audience, so there is a different kind of legibility of the dance, a different kind of visibility,” Estrella says. “And then the different rope lengths. So if you can imagine a short rope length, 50 feet, and how fast the period of the pendulum is, because our dance relies on the pendulum movement of the rope. And then you triple that, or quadruple that, it’s a lot slower of a pendulum, which people will see when they come to the show. We kind of change time in that way.”

It’s not simply an exhibition. Bandaloop tells stories.

“When I was creating this piece, I was starting to see, of course, that Bandaloop itself has a textile lineage,” Estrella says. “We dance on ropes in a very long-standing mountaineering, rope-craft lineage, which is in itself a textile art.”

Estrella points out that the side of a building is an abstract representation of a vertical loom. “The ropes stretch from the roof to the ground, the skeleton of the object being woven,” he says. “And the web goes side to side, and that’s the dancing.

“We sort of weave this fabric of dance and performance on these looms, which are the buildings we dance on.”

So there is method to this madness. And Bandaloop addresses, for your entertainment, the maddening social issues of the day.

“There’s a long history of Bandaloop interacting or collaborating with activists,” Estrella says.

He calls it “vertical activism.” For years, we’ve seen organizations such as Greenpeace hanging banners from bridges. Bandaloop worked with Greenpeace in Taiwan, addressing the issue of plastics in the ocean. And Bandaloop was in Soweto, South Africa, for a climate summit.

For the Rochester shows, Bandaloop will be presenting excerpts from a longer piece, “Loom.” A show, Estrella says, “around the ancestry and ecological impact of textiles.”

Rochester, with its long textile history – the mill runs of the High Falls are a part of that – is a nice fit for the story Bandaloop tells. And there is more to textiles than most of us understand. Bandaloop began presenting this tour in the South.

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Erich Camping
Bandaloop performs in 2012 in Rochester.

“The cotton South,” Estrella says, and its history of slave labor and stolen land. A story that works its way from history to our modern world of pollution and the destruction of our environment.

This is where “Loom” leads.

“Questioning our consumption, of course,” Estrella says. “How much we buy. The amount of garbage that’s produced, not only in the textile-making process, but factories globally.

“Also, the average number of wears, I found out, through research of this piece, is people will buy a garment and wear it an average of seven times before they throw it away. And it ends up in a landfill. And if not in a landfill, it’s donated to Goodwill -- which, actually, most of the clothes in Goodwill end up in landfills in Africa, in developing countries. So it’s a really difficult problem to deal with, the amount of clothing that’s made. Not to mention it takes about 700 gallons of water to produce one T-shirt.”

At all ends of the textile industry, Estrella says, “we’re talking about huge resources, and we’re talking about huge amounts of waste.”

The textile history is also a history of income disparity. It creates billionaires, while garment workers worldwide face serious issues of working conditions.

And yet, undeniably, there is beauty.

“The piece ‘Loom’ is equally weighted on an appreciation, and also sort of a reverence, for what textiles are,” Estrella says. “Which is warmth and color and care. And we’re thinking about not only how we’ll knit christening blankets for the sacred time at the beginning of life, but we’ll also weave death shrouds, and how textiles have a really important part to play in our rituals of culture.”

Bandaloop, Estrella says, “is a dance form, but it is also a spectacle, and it exists in public space, so it really becomes sort of an attention-grabber. It’s a good vehicle for message."

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.