Who is Elizabeth Streb, and why is she flinging bodies all over the place?

I visited renowned choreographer (aka action architect) Elizabeth Streb earlier this week at S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), her Williamsburg, Brooklyn rehearsal, performance and open community space. It was Monday, the last day of rehearsal before the upcoming show at the Park Avenue Armory, “Kiss the Air!” and her company was running through several of their more complex pieces for the last time before the massive load in of equipment and set pieces scheduled for the end of the week.

If you’ve never seen the STREB dancers in action before, you are in for quite a treat. To call them dancers is really an understatement. More accurately, they are dancers/acrobats/athletes/stuntpeople. Elizabeth calls them heroes. I call them amazing. The women, in particular, appear to me as powerful, graceful amazons. For the type of movement they are tasked with enacting, they must be all of the above.

Over the last thirty years or so, Elizabeth Streb has been exploring the mechanics of pure action. She is less interested in dancers who spend the majority of their time on their feet, making pretty shapes with their bodies, than she is in what happens when she shoots them into the air from a stuntman’s air ram at 30 psi, or has them swan diving in sequence from different levels of a 30 foot scaffold onto thick cushions below. For her, the purity of movement is in the action itself. The beauty occurs in that magical space between a dancer’s exhilaration and the audience’s vicarious experience of their total freedom.

SLAM is an active, industrial looking space where her company rehearses and performs, and regular classes are held in PopAction technique (the fundamental form of movement on which her choreography is based), trapeze and trampoline skills. The space is always accessible to the public. In fact, I arrived to find a group of parents with strollers and young children observing the dancers, and a TV crew preparing to shoot an interview with Elizabeth in front of one of her massive sets, a combination of truss and ladders from which her dancers would no doubt be leaping at some point.

A compact figure dressed almost entirely in black, with matching spiky black hair, glasses and motorcycle boots, Elizabeth is direct and without pretense, combining a raw intensity and gleeful enthusiasm that is reflected all around her in the high tech playground she has conjured. Armed with schematic drawings and storyboards, she is part engineer and part storyteller, and exudes the same in-your-face power as her choreography.

Elizabeth Streb is an artist who appears unfazed by both the criticism and the praise that have alternately been directed at her over the years. Her work is at turns nervewracking, thrilling and exhilarating to watch, and she has been termed everything from daredevil to genius. After she burst on the scene to rave reviews in 1981, she was accused in some quarters of promoting a violent, sado-masochistic dance form. But while this summer’s premiere of the company’s piece “Human Fountain” at the World Financial Center Plaza may have disturbed some with its series of bodies diving through the air from three stories of scaffolding, it also symbolically baptized the haunted space by redefining that movement experience, as the dancers repeatedly got up after their euphoric falls and climbed the ladders again.

Streb’s movement theory has its roots in downhill skiing, with which she was obsessed until her mid twenties. She has been exploring ways to recreate that highly kinetic and mostly causal experience since then through dance, while pondering questions about time and space and how they relate to movement. She believes that movements should take only as much time as they take to do (an economy of physicality she surely learned from her beloved sport), depending on the skill of the dancer and the physical conditions in which they are placed. And with each show, she has invented increasingly ingenious and challenging settings to push the limits of her theories as well as her wonderful dancers.

Next week’s show at the Park Avenue Armory is allowing Elizabeth to go to scale in a way she’s never been able to do before. “I don’t think this could be a more impractical show,” she says. Audience members will be seated on either side of a 200 foot deep performance area beholding dances set on and off of giant ladders, scaffolding, bungee cords, with water, enormous video screens… Indeed, not many spaces in New York City could accommodate such a grand vision. Streb sees this increasing scale of containment as a pathway to what she terms the “miniaturization of the body.” As her work gets bigger and bigger, the dancers as individuals become less of an obvious focus, and the action itself takes center stage.

This summer, the STREB company will be doubling in size and travelling to London for the Summer Olympics. For one of their pieces, the dancers will be bungee-ing off the side of the London Tower Bridge. Aided by high speed winches and outfitted with LED lights, they will create a moving kaleidoscope of patterned illuminations. In practical terms, they will exist only as dots of light, yet the fact that these patterns are comprised of actual humans, actually jumping from a bridge (!!) will inform the audience’s experience of the performance, amplifying the spectacle factor to dizzying levels. Other major pieces are also planned for the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye.

Clearly, Elizabeth Streb is not your average choreographer. Her explorations of bodies moving in space and time have their foundations in dance as much as they do in sports, martial arts, and gravity-defying stunts, as well as mathematics, physics and engineering. A MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Award recipient, she asks herself the kind of quantum questions that tread into that deliciously mysterious territory where science and philosophy meet: “Could you move so fast that you could disappear? Can you leave the building by any other way than the door? Can you fall up?”

And yet, it is critical to her that her cerebral explorations have a functional translation, and that the totality of her work “provides a service for what people want and need, and think they should have.” She may have some heady theories about dance and movement, but SLAM is a lively, inviting community space, and experiencing a performance by the STREB company is a wholly visceral experience. Her dancers are indeed heroes, embodying her action mechanics with the kind of grace and skill that elevate those theories to a fully satisfying reality.

Tickets for the December 14th-22nd performances of “Kiss the Air” are available now at the Park Avenue Armory website.

For a video clip of the company rehearsing Human Fountain and a short conversation with Elizabeth Streb in four tiny parts, visit my youtube page here.

Photo by Tom Caravaglia

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