Elizabeth Streb and her team of "actioneers" reinvent the use of space in Brave

February 6, 2010

The Evel Knievel of dance (but is it dance?)


Broad Street Review

February 6, 2010

All dance is about defining space. In every performance, Elizabeth Streb and her dancers masterfully fulfill that definition of dance. From the backboard to the ceiling to the floor and sidewalls— even the invisible wall, and all the space in between— not an element of their space escapes definition.

But dance involves many other elements, not necessarily all of them at once: movement, choreography, emotional expressiveness, narrative, drama, rhythm, music… to name but a few.

For the past two decades, Elizabeth Streb’s take on dance and space has added danger, experimentation and a fascination with things mechanical that can propel the body beyond what it can achieve on its own.

In every performance since her Ready, Set, Pop Action! and Action Heroes, Streb and her dancers masterfully tackle space. Her works are part aerial dance, part daredevil act, part acrobatics, and always as smart as the physics it would take to explain them.

Ready for a fight

Streb is a spiky-haired tomboy/choreographer with a punch who delivers plenty of punch lines, in her look and her work. She wears high-top shoes as if ready for sparring— presumably with ideas, but with people too if necessary. She operates out of S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), her almost-always-open-to-the-public space in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Neighbors wander in to watch a rehearsal or see some new apparatus in-tryout, buying cotton candy, popcorn and soda in the lobby just as if they were on the Midway. One machine cranks up off to the side while another is being deconstructed. It’s like you’re watching a three-ring circus, and purposefully so.

With a commission from Arizona State University’s Future Arts Research – an arts laboratory directed by Bruce Ferguson— Streb brought her flying dance company “Pop Action” to the Annenberg Center this weekend. She created her current show, Brave, in collaboration with Arizona State, MIT’s Media Lab and the circus greats Noe and Ivan Espana, all of whom helped bring her new “Whizzing Gizmo” into being and lightness.

The American Center Live Music for Dance awarded Streb a grant to commission electronic composer David Van Tieghem to create and perform the music. Zaire Baptiste served as deejay, and I’m not sure what he brought to the party except loud.

Like squirrels in treetops

But party it was, with the “Actioneers” playfully hurling themselves around like squirrels in the treetops. They have to be more stunt men and women than dancers to rebound from a death fall or hold on for dear life in a centrifugal force spin. Dressed as colorfully and ruggedly as roller derby girls and boys, they hold their balance while spinning in different directions on a specially designed lazy Susan kind of disc. They scale a back wall; dodge cinderblocks and high-dive from a hydraulically lifted rafter onto thick mats below.

The “Whizzing Gizmo” was the cherry on top. The yellow metal thingy, at least 15 feet high, was shaped like an ice cream cone: the “scoop” on top (a wheel not unlike what your hamster runs around on) and the cone below (a double set of ladders for swooping onto, climbing through and belly-flopping off).

Flirting with boy-toys

Streb started off as a choreographer and became one of the great innovators in the field of dance in the 20th Century. But she has crossed over into some sort of quasi-scientific dream realm filled with boy-toys, where mechanics and bodies flirt with danger. At the end of Brave, Streb comes on stage with a little robot that she gently walks behind as it gamely performs its repertoire of tricks– somersaults, backbends and deep bows. Very cute.

But to me it became a metaphor for the bodies of Streb’s “Actioneers.” Personable as they were, they were also somewhat mechanical, going through their paces with expert alacrity, but little dance moves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.