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