Dancers As Action Heroes
Inside Elizabeth Streb’s “extreme action” performance
When audiences enter the Park Avenue Armory for STREB: Kiss The Air, they will see a stadium of hardware and obstacles, complete with a pool, zip lines, a rotating 20-foot ladder, and a scaffold tower with three diving platforms. This is the STREB Extreme Action Company’s playground, where dancers fall, crawl, climb, and fly.
At a recent rehearsal at S.L.A.M (The Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) in Williamsburg, choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s performers were hard at work on Ascension, one “event” in the program’s lineup. In this section, they climb a 21-foot moving ladder, suspended between two iron platforms. The weight of the performers’ bodies makes the ladder spin, and as a group, they must negotiate timed exits and entrances (dives and drops) to stay attached to the structure.
Streb’s initial idea for the piece was an “eternal climb;” when dancers reach the top, the motion of the ladder places them right back down at the bottom. The timing is by “the skin of their teeth” (as one dancer put it), breathtaking in its danger and precision.
Streb watches closely without interfering with their method. “These dancers are methodologists, they’re engineers,” she remarks. Although they have been blocking the piece for weeks, she still leaves them room to dazzle with a new flipping descent, or a new speed at which they thread through rungs. “If we didn’t have to set something for stage, we would just explore this forever,” Streb says.
Kiss the Air does not rely on lengthy, choreographed works. Rather, dancers sequence through concise, impactful events. And while synchronicity is artistically important in many other dance works, here it is imperative to safety. Choreography is calculated to the fraction of a second, allowing for no hesitation.
In Human Fountain, Streb’s team dives from a three-story platform creating a consistent cascading effect much like water. In Falling Sideways, Streb uses air rams: literal human ejection machines. She also explores “jerk vests” from the film industry, propelling dancers backward from stillness at 100 mph. Her “action heroes” also make waves in an onstage pool, drop bowling balls, weave through hoops, and launch on bungee cords.
No dancer could simply jump into this unique work. It requires innate grit beyond physical strength and skill. “They must be interested in figuring out these sorts of problems” Streb says.
The company’s ten dancers are self-driven in collaborating with the team to make new discoveries about the equipment and each other. Many of them come from gymnastics backgrounds, but some company members are former musical theatre performers, actors, acrobats, and modern dancers.
Streb herself began in modern dance, which left her somewhat dissatisfied. She explains, “I felt that time and space were not really addressed. Dance always happens at a moderate speed, and it is slowed down before a directional change. I wanted to remove that moment. My goal is to be an action page turner.”
Emeri Fetzer is the Online Managing Editor of DancePulp.com, a website about professional dance and dancers. This article is presented as part of an ongoing collaboration between DancePulp and TDF Stages.