Streb presents movement without the baggage of what many expect from dance

February 9, 2010

The meaning in her movements


Broad Street Review

February 9, 2010

In the half-century since its birth at Judson Memorial Church in New York, post-modern dance has evolved into a myriad of movement aesthetics and investigations. One of the most exciting and baffling to dance audiences and critics alike recently dared a blizzard outside and the forces of physics on the human body inside at the Annenberg Theater.

The performance of Brave by Elizabeth Streb’s company, STREB, seeks to reduce movement to staged “Action Events” for her audience. This charismatic, kinetic physicist plumbs the stripped-down elements of dance movement: space, time and energy, especially all aspects of energy, such as gravity, velocity, momentum, centrifugal force and impact.

Her movement “actions” (which she no longer calls dance) are presented without the baggage of what many expect from dance, such as narrative, metaphoric representations of the body, eye-appealing forms and grace. Her reductionism calls to mind the 1964 statement of Frank Stella, who described his hardedge abstract paintings as, “What you see is what you see.”

The Inquirer weighs in

Without understanding where Streb is coming from, it is no surprise that the Inquirer reviewer Ellen Dunkel put down this performance of Brave as “light on the dancing.” The Inquirer periodically responds in puzzlement to various forms of post-modern dance, as when it asked dismissively where was the dance in Headlong Dance Theater’s Cell in the 2006 Live Arts Festival, even though dance historian Marcia Siegel found Cell sufficiently central to dance to author an essay around it for the Hudson Review.

Streb, perhaps most interestingly for a choreographer who was trained in the traditions of Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon but also in the skills of a downhill skier and motorcyclist, assimilates popular movement forms that have their own artistic rigor and discipline, and pizzazz: acrobatics, gymnastics, circus arts, martial arts and extreme sports. She mines these other art forms for their skillful embrace of the forces of physics but also because they push the human body to (and seemingly beyond) its potential, inducing a coincident excitement and terror in the viewing audience from the heightened bodily risks.

It is these latter interests that establish Streb as an outlier in the post-modern dance movement but also as the potential source of appeal to a larger mass audience— hence venues like the Dance Affiliates’ Annenberg stage.

On to Las Vegas

Unlike most of her sister post-moderns, Streb’s group has appeared not only in theaters and museums, but also at the halftimes of professional baseball and basketball games, in Grand Central Terminal and before Coney Island’s Cyclone Rollercoaster. Streb eschews the alienated status of post-modern dance (she supposedly said she’s ready for Las Vegas).

Streb fits in with other members of an earlier avant-garde— whether a Julie Taymor, the creative theater puppeteer allied with Disney to create The Lion King, or choreographers Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones (director of Fela), also finding occasional homes on Broadway. But is this an avant-garde making art that’s accessible to a mass audience, or a sell-out of art as popular entertainment?

Diving from 25 feet

Streb’s Brave, with its mixed results, doesn’t answer this question. Yet its often-wild pursuit of its creator’s goals does itself offer appeal. Brave gave us a range of slam-bang and gymnastic actions in such works as “Wall Run Turn,” with performers exploring pathways of two ensembles running up and into opposite sides of a clear plastic wall while hanging from each other and the dividing wall; “Crash and Slide,” executing rolls and handsprings on a line of dense mats adjacent to another, smoother surface that displaced the energy of performers by facilitating runs, slips and slides; and “Falling,” a section where, at increasing moving heights, performers swan-dived from heights that reached 25 feet from the stage, landing full-body frontally onto a large mat.

In “Squirm,” seven dancers stack themselves into a narrow rectangular box, while an eighth slivers up and down along the transparent side where space appears non-existent (reminiscent of the play of massed bodies in space of the Austrian Willi Dormer, a returning artist at the Live Arts Festival here). “Airlines” presented harnessed performers aerially executing in tandem cartwheels and flips off a vertical wall, with occasional inverted free-falls stopping a foot before heads met the stage.

Like planes taking off

Only occasionally in these sections do the described “actioneer” performers— all impressively able, daring and with a disciplined abandon— create memorable moments that sustain interest. This occurred when performers in “Crash and Slide” leapt headward, forward and diagonally upwards as a plane on take off, with a final moment of an upper body backbend that conveyed the exuberance of winged victory, only to suddenly fall victim (like Icarus) to the inexorable pull of gravity— a gravity and momentum that propelled a forward roll on the ground. This “action” revealed what Streb describes as “the invisible forces that cause movement to happen.”

In contrast to the flight of a balletic jeté soaring and then alighting onto the stage, where the ballet dancer’s artifice disowns the forces of gravity, Streb— who has asked, “Why should gravity be camouflaged?”— requires her performers to drop precipitously from their peak of elevation. In a perhaps ironic reference to this other historic dance form, and in an executed sequence that equaled a magical grace of ballet, some actioneers leapt horizontally, landing frontally onto mats, and where the spring of the body impact and the muscle strength of some amazing torsos propelled the performer up and onto a one legged, plié arabesque, in one striking rebound movement. Here’s where Brave became “Bravo”!

Concrete blocks and I-beams

In perhaps signature actions, Streb revs up the risk factor to an almost uncomfortable degree when performers run and tumble amidst pendulum-swinging arcs of two large concrete blocks, or within the same space as a horizontally spinning and menacingly slicing steel I-beam. Think Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. I was impressed with the performers’ agility and timing and sheer will to survive in these sections; but after this acknowledgement, one may be left with little more than an audience adrenaline rush.

Streb’s best sections— concluding each half— were her most complex. In “Artificial Gravity,” two circles on stage— one outer larger one rotating in one direction, and an inner circle rotating in the opposite direction— have performers running and leaping from one circle to another, navigating (as best their muscles and minds can do) the physical forces generated by these counter-circular motions.

When this fearsome visual cacophony of actioneers, individually and in ensemble, becomes almost too much to witness, the section also offers live video images on a back screen emanating from a camera directly overhead onstage. This abstracted, two-dimensional rendering of the circular motions and darting performers had the allure of some early modernist, constructivist movies where machine-age geometries directed human actions and behaviors.

Leaping from the Gizmo

Streb goes manically circus in her last event, “Super Position,” where she employs an amusement park contraption, a “Whizzing Gizmo” designed by circus artists Noe & Ivan Espana. A revolving wheel whose motion is generated by a running or walking dancer is set within a larger, gravity-fed swinging device rotating with the weights of bodies hanging onto it or projecting from it, many periodically leaping from it onto mats, as bodies either duel with the forces of the machine or get cast asunder by it. The performers who cartwheel and leap within the internal rotating wheel become the action heroes for the awestruck audience.

As Streb creates these elemental physical action events, we’re left to ponder the indominability of the seemingly fragile but quite stalwart instruments of her movement investigations— the performer and the body— and to wonder at their resilience and potential.