I am a rhythm expert” those were the words dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Streb responded when a dance teacher at SUNY Brockport asked what credentials she had to be accepted into the dance program. This Penfield, NY native received her B.S. and later an honorary doctorate from SUNY Brockport and her Master’s from NYU. Not only is Elizabeth, a self-proclaimed, “action specialist and architect”, and expert she is a tour de force choreographer. Her innovative maneuverings of bodies and machinery, of space and time itself are suggestive of genius. And in fact, Ms. Streb is recipient of the prestigious MacAthur Foundation “Genius” award (1997). Her deconstruction and reconfiguration of art as traditionally understood is evocative of what Balanchine did to restate ballet vocabulary and movement relation to space, and what Picasso did to explode the realities of shape and image on canvas. The goal here is not just what the artist does but what the viewer experiences.
Tonight’s offerings began with a candid and often humorous pre-performance talk by Elizabeth Streb. She was engaging on many levels – alleviating the barriers of dancer vs. non-dancer right from the start. She was not so much talking dance as talking movement, motion – how and why and where we move - her prime investigation. Mixing dance with circus, stunt-work, athletics, rodeo and boxing and enormous moveable set structures for the dancers to fling themselves onto, and jump and fly off of are all part of what Ms. Streb terms “PopAction.” Her explanations of her investigations were compelling and scientific as well as artistic in scope. She used as an example walking as a way in which we manage and organize our weight in conjunction with gravitational pull. We learn just how much force to propel us forward and just how much weight to hold back, she informed us. As a dancer she said she asked questions about human flight and why dance mostly stays on the ground supported by our feet. This reminded me of ballet’s begginings in Louis XIV’s court and how the ethereal idea of flight was very much entwined into structuring ballet. Circles also seemed to be a theme running throughout as she talked. I wondered listening to her if she wasn’t a force for connecting things herself just as a circle does.
Ms. Streb, a modern dancer if not in form at least in thought, recounted that in ballet class a teacher told her to look in the mirror and so she stopped moving to look in the mirror though she couldn’t understand why. Then the teacher explained she meant to look and to dance, and that seemed illogical to Ms. Streb. In another story she was told to put her hair up in the “ballerina” bun because as the teacher insisted she wouldn’t be able to see where she was gong with her hair in her face. Elizabeth Streb replied, “I don’t need to know where I’m going. I know where I am.”
Streb Extreme Action Company was formed in 1979. For their unconventional performance at the Nazareth College Arts Center Dance Festival the company premiered Streb: Forces – what I would call a movement action piece that for balletomanes and traditional dance enthusiasts holds little of the aesthetic sensibility they may expect from a dance performance but Streb opens that aesthetic into a new realm of both expressive and receptive possibility. As the audience entered the theatre a projection of images flashed across the upstage wall of the dancers’ faces, or as Ms. Streb aptly named them the “Action Engineers.” Various information about them – name age, height, etc. also appeared in the film. The dancers were introduced on stage by a DJ/VJ on stage right (In Living Color-esque). There were also cameramen on stage and cameras in a multitude of places so that the images we saw on the wall were from a variety of angles and at times virtually manipulated.
The Action Engineers began to shake veraciously, the stage floor turned and they went thrashing about against a plexi-glass wall and often face down, onto a cushioned floor. The sounds, like the music were harsh, and the bangs and splats amplified through microphones for full effect. The dancers verbally gave cues as to what was about to happen next, not only to each other but also to the audience. Immediately the audience was enveloped and made to feel part of the action, part of creating the experience; at times encouraged to egg on the dancers to jump from ever increasing heights even as high as 15 feet. It wasn’t obvious at first that anything extraordinary was taken place, apart from the daring, living on the edge of danger, breathtaking feats – Yes it was circus like, an almost carnival atmosphere – but slowly our awareness and kinesthetic relation to how they moved (how we move) was drastically altered; as if viewing movement for the first time. I believe in our own minds thanks to Streb the danger didn’t dissipate but our relationship to danger shifted and no longer stood between what we do and what we want to do. There was a feeling of primal shift. The end of the first act was one of my favorites with the spinning centers of the stage – once again the circle theme – linking all things together; including what we see and what we feel.
The audience was eager and in their seats at a hurried pace for the second act to commence. As in the first act technicians (somewhat masked by other action happening on stage) manipulated the harnesses and machinery on cue as if part of the larger choreographic structure. A sea-saw-like contraption was center stage and allowed one dancer to fly at one end while the weight of other dancers plus actual weights balanced and imbalanced the other end. As the elegant and transcendent flight of the dancer illuminated every dream of flying any of us ever had the projections of the planet created a sense of travel reminiscent of the Disney World theme park attraction called “Soaring.” We were then treated to a remote controlled robot – dancing, posing and exercising – truly suspending what we thought possible.
The dance in the box suspended in the air entrancingly exploring movement in a confined space was a development of the first Streb dance I saw in the late-1980’s in NYC the first time I met Ms. Streb. The image and sensation has stayed with me. My next favorite moment was called “Spatial Rift” – the dancers in harnesses suspended on wires and counter-levered with other dancers holding ropes. This particularly captured me because I am planning to create a dance of similar construction for the NTID/RIT Dance Company in February 2011 titled “ Danser et Voler” (to dance and to fly). The ideas presented here seemed connected to those that choreographer Lester Horton codified some 60 years ago from his dance studies on balance, weight and gravity. For the next dance the back wall shifted down on an angle and became a sliding surface for the dancers dressed in slippery plastic jumpsuits, and then became a floor where their movements were projected once more blurring the line between reality and illusion – expanding perception. The finale was a huge lopsided-wheel with a protruding pointed end much like a spinning wheel in a hamster cage and used in similar ways. The ups and downs, over and arounds were fashioned into spectacular dance.
The ultra-creative Elizabeth Streb, her ultra-strong and fearless action engineer dancers, and her action collaborators consisting of director, cinematographers, sound designer/composer, dramaturge, costumer, lighting designer, projection designer, set designer and technical director successfully demonstrated what Ms. Streb said dance was “an intersection of movement and art.” She sought to inspire us to think more deeply about our perceptions and comprehensions of action and we did. As the company took their finale bows Ms. Streb invited the entire audience to visit their Streb Action Invention Lab in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and learn how to do what they do, not only how to fly but how to return. Ms. Streb and her full company sat on the edge of the stage and welcomed ecstatic members of the audience to talk and relish in the glow of being pushed to the edge. And what exactly did we all discover at the edge? – Each one of us could fly!
Thomas Warfield, 2011