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. 

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