STREB Brave defies sets its own boundries and defies conventional categories

February 8, 2010

The Fear Factor


Broad Street Review

February 9, 2010

Streb is a dance company that really isn’t about dance. Elizabeth Streb, the company’s founder, choreographer and— as she calls herself— action/architect, is doing what she calls Extreme Action.

These two words were displayed on the stage wall behind the actioneers (Streb’s word for dancers) as the audience arrived at the Annenberg performance. Whether they were warming up or rehearsing or even if the performance had already begun was unclear. All eight actioneers were extremely active.

On stage, dancers were jumping up and grabbing at a bar, swinging backward and then coming forward hard to hit what we quickly understood to be a transparent barrier. The bodies hit the unseen barrier with a savage whap sound and then fell flat on their stomachs on the padded mat on the stage. The ouch factor for the audience was huge. The stage itself also contained a large mechanism with panels and ladders that filled up most of the space.

A pathetic holler

A young man at an elaborate music DJ system picked up a mike to welcome everyone. He instructed audience members to ignore the pre-performance announcements and to talk as much as they liked, go to the lobby, and do anything they wanted. Most of all, he exhorted the audience to holler— which they did, but rather pathetically, given the exertions transpiring on stage.

It was difficult to think of the ten Streb movement onslaughts as dance. The program’s title— Brave— pretty much describes what happened. This is a company that’s about physicality. The choreography aspect simply means the movements have been staged so no one gets hurt.

After the first two or three of these pieces, they all pretty much seemed alike. It was difficult to develop any sense of what the central metaphor of this outfit might be— physical risk for sure, fearless performers every one of them… but there didn’t seem to be any unifying element except for physical courage. It was side show meets the main stage.

Banging and sliding

“Wall Run Turn” includes a wall, and a lot of running and turning. Ditto for “Crash and Slide”— lots of banging into things and sliding.

“Polar Wander” consisted of a heavy metal construction I-beam swinging across the stage at the end of a long rope while assorted actioneers dived under it while it swung over them at varying degrees of closeness to the stage. Meanwhile, their fellow actioneers urged them on, shouting: “Fall!” “Stand!” and other safety instructions.

“Falling” needs no description. This is simply the main movement of the piece, with everyone tumbling off the huge metal contraption that fills the stage. In the last fall, however, when one young woman reaches the very top of the huge metal set and looks down, getting ready to fall while her fellow auctioneers holler at her to jump, it feels personal, and you’re glad she lands thump and gets up and waves to the audience.

One physical miscue

In “Artificial Gravity,” two circles– one onstage, and another within the stage circle, moved in opposite directions, with actioneers hopping aboard on either, like an amazingly complex game of hopscotch. One actioneer actually fell off the inner circle during one of its revolutions— the only physical miscue of the evening (and probably only those of us sitting near the stage even saw this happen). She was back up on the spinning circle almost immediately.

After intermission— during which many audience members left, allowing others to move up to better seats— the Brave onslaught continued. “Airlines” had the actioneers suited up in harnesses, clambering up the walls and leapfrogging into space. “Squirm” had everyone scrunched up in a largish container. “Robot” included a real robot.

“Gauntlet” was the scariest of a scary program. Cinderblocks swung across the stage as actioneers also swung on ropes, avoiding close encounters with the blocks.

The program ended well with “Super Position,” featuring a big “Whizzing Gizmo” (Streb’s term), designed by circus artists Noe and Ivan Espana, that looked like a merry-go-round and had dancers in it, on it, hanging on, shifting spaces, seeming even to fly. Everyone liked this, and it made a good finale.

Ramping up danger

But what to make of Streb? The troupe represents the aesthetic of Elizabeth Streb, who has been honored with a MacArthur genius award and a Guggenheim. She seems to be most interested in the fear factor of movement. After all, even in the most carefully choreographed ballet or basketball game, someone can misjudge a cue and end up physically hurt.

She ramps up the physical danger level and keeps reminding the audience of her fascination with scientific and mathematical theory, bits of which are projected briefly behind the performers. At other times, an overhead camera records from above what the audience is watching straight-on.

What Streb is doing is fascinating, but it’s as much circus art and side show stunts as dance. She has melded all this together into a unique performance entity that sets its own boundaries and defies conventional categories.