Friday, April 18, 2014

Crash, Fall, Fly!

                                                                     all photos © SKepecs 2014

by Susan Kepecs
SHAKE HIT CRASH SLICE FALL ROTATE FLY ESCAPE WRITHE BOUND TUMULT ROCKET.  That was the program for STREB: Forces, the tour-de-force Elizabeth Streb show at Overture Hall last night (April 16).  Right off the bat you knew this was revolutionary.  I can’t count the times I’ve been busted by the Overture police for trying to sneak a few flashless photos at a performance, but I can tell you how tickled I was when MC Zaire Baptiste told the audience to ignore the theater’s prerecorded admonishment about your electronic devices.  “Madison, Wisconsin, make some noise!” he exhorted.  “You need to keep your cellphones on!  Turn on your cameras!  Load your pictures on Facebook and Instagram and let everyone know how much fun you had!”
So here, in celebration of this act of imagemaking liberation, and in lieu of a review, I’m doing just that.  Streb, the empress of extreme action, straddles the line between mad physicist and artistic genius with her choreographic explorations of what happens when humans in flight collide with gravitational forces.  Projected in black and white video on the backdrop, she offers some insights into each piece. “I’m interested in the crashing,” she explains. There’s an undercurrent of deadpan humor in her commentary, delivered with thoughtful urgency: “It’s so visceral when you hear that sound.”
“Forces” is a full-throttle immersion in Streb’s idiosyncratic vision, which rests, in part, on improbable devices she designs as impetus for action.  “I’m interested in hardware no one’s ever seen before,” she says. These inventions themselves are sculptural. The lighting, and the projected backdrops behind the movement, are painterly.  David Van Tieghem’s electronic score is onomatopoetic, wooshing and smashing in concert with the action and augmented by by the grunts and cheers of the company’s extreme action specialists as they execute their flights and impacts, plus the audience’s gasps.  The whole thing’s a sort of good-humored, death-defying circus and Baptiste is the carnival barker, calling out the names of particular feats and configurations. “The Tasmanian Devil!”  “Double Cheeseburger!” “The Wheel of Fortune!.”

This is HIT.  The auminum poles frame a sheet of plexiglass; the action specialists swung around the top bar and slammed into it, or hurled themselves at it from the floor until finally it seemed to shatter. 

In SLICE, the action specialists dodged this spinning steel I beam -- jumped over it, outran it, bopped up and down beneath it -- and somehow nobody got smacked.

FALL (no photo):  “I think everone can fall from 10 meters – I think not everyone wants to,” Streb says on video.  “A great action artist can’t worry too much about their future.  
“A mouse can jump from an 11-story building and walk away; a person would shatter; a hippopotamus would liquefy.”
 The action specialists ride a rising beam, from which they fling themselves onto the mat – fly, thud!  The heights from which they fall, and the miles per hour of their descent, are projected behind them.  The beam reaches the 22-foot mark. Daredevil Cassandre Joseph is the last one left.  She looks down, walks to the end of the beam and mimes giving up. “If you want to see Cassie jump you have to make more noise!” Baptiste advises.  The crowd yells; Joseph returns to the middle of her precarious platform and jumps / flies / belly flops onto the thick mat below. “35 mph” flashes on the wall behind her. 
              For ROTATE (no photo), an enormous turntable spins speedily on the floor; the extreme action specialists bellyflop onto it and ride it around upside down, standing on their hands.  Ballet-trained action specialist Jackie Carlson grand jetés on this turning surface.  “Nijinsky!” Baptiste calls out. 

Streb, projected, told the story of Lawnchair Larry, who tied 45 helium balloons to an ordinary outdoor seat and sailed over Los Angeles.  In FLY, Carlson sailed around in the grasp of this gyrating fork, posed in attitude or beating entrechat quatres.

ESCAPE was more flight-of-fancy than action feat, though requiring abundant physical control.  This action specialist, whose name I didn’t catch, flailed like a trapped spider inside a small, bright box suspended some 10 feet or more over the mat.  He flung himself, body smacking against the container’s sides; stretched horizontally across its cramped space he scrambled up and down the walls; he flipped and somersaulted and finally, in darkness, lept free, thudding onto the mat below. 

“Action heroes imagine something before it exists,” Streb says.  Look at the Wright brothers – before them, no one had learned to fly.  “Bullriders, laborers, people who climb the highest mountains – they’re action heroes following their dreams.” 

In BOUND – for me, the most kinesthetic piece on the program – it sent my own dreams swirling that night – Streb’s action heroes, bound with cables to clotheshanger-shaped contraptions suspended from the battens bounded, spun, flew and somersaulted, bashing against the back wall on which projections of
buildings, continents, oceans and the moon slid by with increasing speed.

TUMULT (no photo) looked Olympic; against snowy projections, action specialists in red suits ran up a slope and tumbled down, leaping over each other like participants in a log rolling contest.  “Chuck your friends!”  Baptiste yelled.  One specialist flung the others, gathered at the top of the slope, to the bottom.

And then there was ROCKET, starring this tilting, spinning yellow gizmo.  “You have to mount a machine and learn its tricks,” Streb says – a quote she attributes to the Wright Brothers.  And that’s what the action specialists do.  They spin around inside this outré piece of moving hardware, dance in it, run like gerbils in it, climb up and down it, fling themselves off of it. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, as Baptiste would say, was the Streb Extreme Action Company at Overture Hall Wednesday night. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Conversation with Brian Lynch

                                                                                  © Tomoji Hirakata

by Susan Kepecs
Brian Lynch, honcho of hard bop trumpet con o sin clave, master transcender of the line that divides Latin jazz from straight ahead, comes to UW-Madison to lead a four-day workshop in the School of Music’s jazz program.  It’s a tremendous opportunity for the students, and also for the public, since we get to hear Lynch ply his chops with the UW Jazz Orchestra and the UW Honors Jazz Band at Music Hall on May 1 under the auspices of the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Isthmus Jazz Series.
Lynch, who grew up in Milwaukee, is a literal link between old-school training by apprenticeship and today’s academization of jazz.  While getting his BA at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s Jazz Institute in the mid-70s, he apprenticed with Brew City jazz icons like saxophonist Berkeley Fudge and guitarista Toty Ramos’ La Chazz, back when it was a Fania-style salsa band rather than the Latin jazz outfit it is now.  (FYI, Cardinal Bar owner Ricardo Gonzalez brought La Chazz, in its salsa band incarnation, to Mad City on several occasions including one at the old Bunky’s, on Park and Regent, and another, I think, at the Cardinal’s long-gone sister, Rick’s Havana Club).
In 1981 Lynch traded Milwaukee for Manhattan.  He skyrocketed as a sideman, playing straight ahead with Horace Silver (1982-85) and salsa with Fania All-Star Hector “el cantante de los cantantes” Lavoe (1983-87) – not Fania’s, or Lavoe’s, best period, but still.  Lynch’s next leap landed him long-term spots with el grán maestro Eddie Palmieri (with whom Lynch has appeared here twice in the last decade) and, from 1988-90, with hard bop maharajah Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.  The last of Blakey’s trumpeters (he died in 1990), Lynch followed in the enormous footsteps of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Terrance Blanchard. 
Also in the late mid-80s, Lynch emerged as a leader in his own right.  Today he has 18 albums out under his own name, with two more in the mill.  His work’s rich with the fabled history of the idioms he plies.  He lays funky, Lee Morgan-like riffs over the slightly deconstructed bugalú “Dance The Way U Want To” on ConClave Vol. 2 (with his Spheres of Influence ensemble, Criss Cross 2010).  The haunting, melodic lines he puts out in his tribute to Freddie Hubbard’s smoky ballad “Eclipse” (Tribute to the Trumpet Masters, Sharp Nine 2000) are a smidge smoother than the original, but hark back beautifully to the best times of bop.  Lynch’s salsa chops sizzle on “Guajira Dubois,” off The Brian Lynch / Eddie Palmieri Project / Simpático (ArtistShare 2006), for which the two leaders won the Best Latin Jazz Grammy in 2007.   
A performance and recording career like Lynch’s would’ve been plenty before the 1970s, when institutions of higher learning, including UW-Madison, started adding jazz musicians to their faculties.  But now that so many of the best players also teach, the Brew City-raised trompetista gains economic security and the opportunity to pass along the torch as associate professor of jazz trumpet at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami.  You can’t duplicate the urgency and grit of old-school jazz, with its strong sabor of seamy nighttime streets, in the academy – and too many young players with fancy jazz educations have come through here lately playing dull bossa-pop with a global tinge or cerebral chess-game improvisations that just don’t swing.  But musician / profs like Lynch help save the music from this watered-down fate.

I spoke with Lynch on the phone last week. about his own history, the music today, and the realities of the accelerating academization of jazz.  Here’s what he had to say:

CulturalOyster: Growing up in Milwaukee with a name like Lynch, how did you come to play with La Chazz?

Lynch: By aspiring to play with musicians like Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis [both, I believe, were Wisconsin Conservatory faculty at the time], and by being attuned to the authentic jazz community.  Latin music was never too far from the foreground when you’re listening to jazz and involved in it.  In the era I grew up in so much of the music had Latin influence, whether it was Horace Silver or McCoy Tyner or even the fusion bands.  It wasn’t hard to make the move once I was exposed to salsa, to be really intrigued with it and feel really comfortable with it being an integral part of my musical consciousness.  A lot of the guys in La Chazz were jazz players – I knew Toty Ramos as a fine jazz guitarist before I knew he played Latin music. 

CulturalOyster: Tell me about some of the big influences on your career after that.

Lynch:  Obviously, working with Palmieri and Blakey – those were dream-come-true kinds of situations. Freddie Hubbard was one of my idols – I followed him around like a puppy dog.  One of the high points of my life was when he welcomed me as a Jazz Messenger.  Of course playing with Horace Silver was my first big small group jazz gig.  Working with Hector Lavoe for five years gave me my salsa button, as Eddie [Palmieri] would say.  The AfroCuban tradition and bebop / hardbop are my touchstones, but I’ve played a really wide swath, from bebop to punk.  I worked with Lila Downs [on her 2008 Manhattan Records release Ojo de Culebra, as well as on Simpático] and Prince [on his 1996 three-CD Emancipation album].  I played and recorded with one of my closest friends from Milwaukee, James Chance or James White, as he’s variously called, who became a controversial figure in punk funk or no wave in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.  I still like to keep up with what’s going on, I look for adventurous music. If you’re a serious musician you’re always developing, no matter what era you come from. 

CulturalOyster: In the bio on your website you say that jazz today draws on a wider variety of musical styles or genres than it used to.  But your tribute albums [Tribute to the Trumpet Masters and three Unsung Heroes volumes, Holistic Music Works 2008-2009] prove that for you, jazz history runs deep – and also, it seems to me that most of what you do, despite the “spheres of influence” concept, sounds happily old-school.  What am I missing?

Lynch: Yeah, if old-school means connected with tradition, I do old-school in the sense of being a hardbop alumnus of Horace Silver and Art Blakey, or in the sense of swingin’ Latin jazz.  My music is comprehensible – I don’t like head-scratching music.  I like do to music that has a strong narrative sense, that tells a story.  Perhaps it’s because my own personal sense of adventure is more nuanced than the novelty some people like to hear.  The thing I want from all the music I aspire to is the ability to be spontaneous.  My metaphor for improvisation is that it’s sort of like you’re bobsledding downhill, through terrain.  When we improvise we’re negotiating musical terrain, making a pathway in it.  You can go through that terrain or fly over it or drop bombs on it.  But I feel like some music today doesn’t negotiate it.  Bebop is the consummate technique of having an intimate relation with the musical terrain of time and space, the ability to control it moment by moment but not planning it out in advance. That intimate relationship with what you’re playing that the bebop masters had – great great rumberos have it too.  When you listen to the Muñequitos de Matanzas, when you see what the quinto [the little, high-pitched drum] player does – that’s what a great bebop trumpet player does, it’s what Miles [Davis] did.
CulturalOyster: You teach in an enormous academic music program – what do you think about the ever-expanding academization of jazz?

Lynch: It’s interesting that jazz is in the academy.  Academia itself is becoming more and more inclusive.  I think schools should reflect everything in American life, and the idea of jazz studies at least partially comes from the cultural studies programs of the ‘70s – many jazz programs came out of the black studies departments then, or linked to them.  Madison’s an example of that, with Richard Davis [who was hired by the School of Music in 1977] and his relationship with Afro-American Studies. 
            But it’s a complex and fascinating subject.  Probably what you’re questioning is whether being in the academy is helping or not helping the music.  I’d say it’s what you make of it.  There are more and more practitioners of the music with genuine credentials in the schools now.  In my modest way I’m part of that.  Teaching is transmitting what I’ve lived – my journey as a trumpet player and a person expressing himself through the music.  And for someone still actively involved in the search, being in an academic setting has great value – as a teaching artist I’m actively fostering my own musicianship and still trying to progress.  Being in the institution is like being in research, I’m expected to do research when I’m out traveling the world – it’s work to share with my colleagues and my students, and it’s an adaptable paradigm that hopefully works very well. 
I’m very involved in recreating for my students some aspects of things that have been lost.  The culture has changed, we’re not in 1960 any more. So we have to consider the conditions that created the music, whether it was jazz, Cuban, or rock n’ roll. Those situations are gone and we don’t want to go back to 1945 – I wouldn’t want this generation to go through what musicians dealt with then [poverty, the ghetto, violence, hard drugs] – so we have to come up with alternatives.  For me, teaching music is partly about talking about the things that interest you. I look at the social elements, the culture and the life under which the music flourished – the music itself encompasses all that, if you read enough into it.  You’re right – I’m oriented toward having a historical base under what I do.  I’d have been a historian, if not a musician.  It’s important to understand not just the notes but where the notes came from. 
The music conservatory in the ‘70s had a very loose atmosphere compared to what goes on today.  But I think young musicians are looking for the same things I was – you know what’s happening and you seek it out.  I looked for the music I wanted, in the places I knew it was.  I don’t have a PhD, but I’m supervising five doctoral candidates. I feel like I have to be a Zen master – give ‘em the questions they have to ponder.  They’re all different as players.  Some come in with a lot of experience – I’ve got a piano player who’s out working with Arturo Sandoval right now.  Others are really good, but they haven’t done anything.  They have some interesting topics for their dissertations, but the dissertation’s not enough.  You gotta go out and make a record and make it good enough to get played on the radio and make yourself a little name, or else you go right from school into teaching.  There’s too much competition for that – too many guys like me looking for those jobs.  You gotta bring the street back into it. 
What’s the street?  It’s just a community of practice; it’s not about what you do on the street, it’s about the abilities you get from that way of getting to the music. 
So in the academy it’s about what happens on the bandstand – you have to bring the bandstand back into the classroom.  I get an ensemble of kids to play my music.  I help them work on it, but they’re in my band and I expect them to make me sound good – I don’t want to suffer, so they must play well. 

CulturalOyster: You’re doing a short residency here on campus, and then performing with the UW Jazz Orchestra and the UW Honors Jazz Band at the end.  So as I understand it it’s just you, no sidemen on this trip.  Can you really get a group of students ready to perform with you in four days?

Lynch: I believe I’ll have some help.  I’ve sent my music out in advance – I’m sure they’re rehearsing.  I know Johannes [Wallman, director of the UW-Madison School of Music Jazz Studies program] – I know he’s a very estimable educator and a fine musician and he’ll be taking care of business.  And four days is beautiful, you can get a lot out of that experience.  It’ll give everyone the stimulus to play their best, not just for me but for themselves.  It’s always the art of the possible, for all of us. I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun, and I’ve heard good things about the program and how it’s expanding.  I’m looking forward to it.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Extreme Action Hero Elizabeth Streb Comes to Town

by Susan Kepecs
Part mad physicist, part swashbuckler, part philosopher, part choreographer, extreme action specialist Elizabeth Streb slams into uncharted performance territory with death-defying delight.  In the course of her extraordinary career she’s received a MacArthur Genius award, been commissioned to send dancers bungee jumping off London landmarks during the 2012 Summer Olympics, bounded down the side of Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of Art (a 2010 reenactment of a 1970 work by Trisha Brown, a grande dame of postmodern dance), published a book titled Streb: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (CUNY, 2010), and opened a public extreme action laboratory in Brooklyn called S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) – “a gathering spot for the exchange of creative ideas across cultures,” it says on her website.  Streb’s Extreme Action Company last performed in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2004; they return this coming Wednesday, April 16, this time to Overture Hall, with Streb’s current show, “Forces.” 
When there are no public monuments to fly from, as there usually aren’t under the proscenium arch, Streb invents these crazy Rube Goldberg-esque machines that turn the stage into a dangerous playground.  Now 63, Streb leaves most of the wild physical feats she devises to her company of extreme action heroes, who fling themselves into space from high scaffolding suspended over trampolines, somersault up and down walls while suspended from complicated harnesses, or spin in a gigantic “whizzing gizmo” – Cirque de Soleil meets the wildest styles of Olympic snowboarding in Albert Einstein’s laboratory.  I had a fabulous chat with Streb on the phone a few weeks ago, which I’ll share with you here:

CulturalOyster: A lot of what you do involves breaking the barriers of gender, class, and formal dance genres.  The postmodernists – especially the Judson Dance Theater choreographers of the ‘60s (including Trisha Brown) aimed for a sense of populism, too, but you do it in a much different, very intense form. Since you essentially call what you do dance, what’s your own dance background? 

Streb: My dance background is scattered – I didn’t start till I was 17.  I majored in dance at SUNY Brockport.  I had always considered myself an extreme action specialist.  From 4 to 17 I did downhill skiing, baseball, basketball; I was riding motorcycles.  The idea of forces and impact really entered my body – I was fascinated by all the things that happen even before a move gets started.  I got into the dance studio [in college] and I was an idiot savant.  Why are they asking me to count?  Real movement, it doesn’t seem possible that you can count it – you have to do it, be in it.  In retrospect I was the odd woman out, but I wouldn’t have asked the questions I ask if I’d started dancing at an early age.
I’ve wondered ever since then – if you’re counting, if you’re not out of control, is it really movement?  The subject for me is about always falling, always being in a state of emergency, so the audience can feel the action.  From my point of view that happens when the dancer isn’t planning the moves in advance, even though the piece is totally choreographed. The Judson choreographers were brilliant – for them anything that moved could be dance, the idea was to examine new grammars.  So I call what I do dance, but maybe I don’t belong in the dance world.

CulturalOyster: You’ve created a very open studio environment in Brooklyn, which is also about breaking through barriers.  Performing at your studio is totally different than performing under the proscenium arch – how does that affect your work when you’re on tour? 

Streb: I think what we try to do is bring the wildness [to the stage].  We think of ourselves as types of action movement inventors who can only reside where the wild things roam.  We hope that although our shows are in their dance series, presenters sell them as a different kind of physical experience.  I have a DJ, he’s also my Emcee – he comes onstage to welcome the audience in a way that introduces S.L.A.M. to the world whether it’s under the proscenuim or not.  Right away we get the word out that this is wild and crazy.  We like to say that people of all ages, from a year old to 90 or 100, recognize what we’re doing. Our dancers perform very personally – our dream is that the audience feels a personal connection.  I keep the audience attention through the drama of the moves, which intensifies when it’s personalized.  My intention is to get you to feel that you’ve done a lot of the moves yourself – the kinesthetic experience is the subject, the meaning, and the content of our shows.  I can’t tell a story – I don’t want to do what writers or filmmakers do.  I want to ask what is the actual content of action? I want the audience to feel that they’ve taken a crazy, wild ride.

CulturalOyster: Your work is related, in an abstract and conceptual way, to the kinds of extreme sports I’ve been watching at the Olympics – the snowboarding, the ski-jumping.  You’ve said that what you do is about flying while not camoflaging gravity, and that’s what the Olympians do, too – but the training protocols for these extreme sports have to be somewhat specific to each one.  What kinds of training do your dancers get in order to be able to carry out your risky choreography – and how much of it is technique, versus just plain guts and grit?

Streb: A lot of it is technique, though we try to make it look like an accident ‘cause that’s the iambic pentameter of action, the archetypal time-space-body phenomenon.  The dancers’ training has to be pervasive – it depends on their weakest link.  A really thin woman hanging onto a beam needs to lift weights, for example.  I’m not an educator – I’m a specialist in inventing action and designing sets – but they go to the gym, to yoga, to Alexander technique, aerobics – Streb technique is a combination of aerobic and anerobic.  We have one dance where a big hill comes down – dancers run up and down the hill and after 30 seconds their legs are shot.  The type of training they do to have their legs handle that is like what downhill skiiers have to do.
Sometimes my dancers have to fall onto mats from a height of 40 feet – their bodies have to be able to take that hit going 35 mph.  The mat deflects it somewhat, but as a mathmetician friend said, bodies don’t really bounce – the impact is absorbed in the deformation of the body. The organs, the nerves, the metabolism are affected.  To do Streb you have to have the heart, soul and desire to go higher, faster – each dancer has to be able physically and metaphysically.  They have to train their psyches.  I can see it in their eyes if they’re not going to work out.  There’s not a lot of turnover, most of my dancers have at least several years in the company.       
        People say why do you want to do that?  Everyone has a different answer, but it’s just a passion of people who choose movement.  It’s just a dream.  You’re not born wanting to be an extreme action specialist, but in their individual ways my dancers want to find out how far their body can go.  They feel they’re participating in something beyond what humans have done before – facing their fears, one and then the next.  All of the physical things I’ve done myself seem outrageous afterwards.  I really feel transformed, I feel there’s nothing I can’t do. 

CulturalOyster: What’s the age limit on that kind of extreme movement?

Streb: I guess I’m the guinea pig.  I stopped at 48, though I’m 63 now and I still do some extreme things.  You could say I let them happen to me, rather than do them.  For the groundbreaking for the new downtown Whitney [in 2011] I let a ton of dirt fall on my head. 
            But everyone’s different in terms of when they stop.  If I took an average I’d say people usually leave the company in their mid-30s, but Fabio Tavares was a baby when he came in, and he’s 37 now.  I had one dancer stay till 44.  Some leave young because they worry about their futures, but now they make better salaries, so that’s less of an issue now. 
The thing about Streb technique is that when you get more experienced you get better.  We work very fast – like in skiing, there’s no time to make adjustments.  And as it goes on it’s less abusive to bodies.  We take a lot of impact – your bones get stronger because of that.

CulturalOyster: What kinds of questions are driving your choreographic explorations of gravity, risk, time and space?

Streb: Everything I’ve ever made starts with a question.  The 2012 Olympics [when her extreme action heroes, at night and wearing red, danced on the spokes of the mammoth London Eye Ferris Wheel on the bank of the River Thames] provoked an entire inquiry.  People could look up and see these tiny red dots doing a kind of ballet 400 feet above the ground, and they’re thinking “is that a person up there?” 

I thought, could it be it’s not what the dancers are doing that’s important, but where they are and what’s happening to them because of where they are, and because of the forces they have to contend with on the journey?  It broke apart my concept of theatrical dance.  Should dance be trapped in the theater or in the urban environment, where the audience is an unsuspecting person walking by and you’ve constructed this moment and they glance over and see it – there’s a surprise, something they see another person doing that changes them forever.  
Right now I’m wondering, what is time?  What’s the present tense?  Can I choreograph a thousand nows, so every half-second you’re like, ah, ah, ah!  The Aha! moment doesn’t stop.  That’s the holy grail.  I saw it a couple of times in London.  And I see it in this show [Forces] – it’s the best show I’ve ever made.  And I try to imagine – what’s the next thing I’m going to be doing?