Face to Face: Elizabeth Streb

How do you stage turbulence? Can you move in more than one direction at the same time? Can you break through a surface? Elizabeth Streb, aptly dubbed “the Evel Knievel of dance,” has devoted her life’s work to investigating questions like these. For the past 25 years, Streb and her Extreme Action Company have tested the boundaries of movement with a high-impact blend of acrobatics and daredevil athleticism called PopAction. And since 2003, the company’s home base in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has offered year-round classes, workshops and camps for children and adults.

No traditionalist, the MacArthur Award–winning choreographer flouts the notions that dancers should land on their feet and make movement look effortless. Streb’s dancers are “Action Engineers,” and they fly through the air in harnesses, slam into Plexiglas walls, somersault through gauntlets of swinging cinder blocks and free-fall onto their backs and stomachs. DT recently caught up with the “Action Architect” at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) to see what her latest action-adventure, BRAVE—now touring—is all about.

Dance Teacher: In BRAVE, dancers move on surfaces that continuously rotate. Describe your creative process.

Elizabeth Streb: It started with a 20-foot revolving circle device that has an 8-foot circle inside of it; the two circles turn in different directions at different speeds. Then I asked questions like, “Can I make the body appear to immediately shift directions?” which you cannot do in reality because of inertia. But if you jump on and off the moving surfaces, you immediately shift directions. So I built patterns and will try to see if the audience even notices that it’s an alarming idea.

DT: When do you involve the dancers?

ES: I get the equipment made, get it in the space and then bring in my dancers. By this point, I’ve already done a lot of drawings so I understand the conditions, but I have no idea what the dancers can do until they step on the equipment.

DT: Your work is physically challenging. What do you look for in your dancers?

ES: I’m looking for the wild animals. I want people who are riveting to watch. And my dancers cannot be chronically weak anywhere.

DT: Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times once wrote: “A choreographer who requires a special taste rarely appeals to a broad public. But Elizabeth Streb’s pieces do both, and this paradox is the secret to her success.” How do you accomplish this?

ES: I try to create a non-predictive temporal structure—the equivalent of a page-turner in movement. I want your attention. I think people love the series of surprises. The nature of my work is very working-class and street, and very anarchic in a certain way. I’m really breaking rules on many different levels.

DT: When developing your style, why did you depart from traditional dance?

ES: When I first started dancing in my teens, I kept thinking, “Why are there mirrors? I thought I was supposed to be moving.” It was so positionally acclimated, and I thought, “Who cares? I’m going to be out of [this position] in half a second anyways.” I started collecting questions about modern dance from the get-go. It just didn’t seem organic enough to me in terms of its procedures.

DT: How would you describe your teaching approach?

ES: Our theory is based on the belief that humans can fly. We want students to adhere to their personal best. It’s not compare-and-despair. We have positions like crouch, sit, ball, pike and downward dog; each one of these shapes has a different base of support. When a kid comes in, we say, “Make an X! Make a T! Do a crouch!” And they just do it. It’s completely see-and-do. DT

Former senior editor of Dance Teacher, Michelle Vellucci writes about dance and the arts in New York City.

Photo by Jack Mitchell, courtesy of Elizabeth Streb

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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