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?

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