Taking the Hit
ELIZABETH STREB IS on the phone from New York at the uncivilized hour of 7 a.m., talking (lucidly) about falling flat down from ridiculous heights, fractured wrists and noses, fast motorcycles and rodeo: "Those eight-second guys in rodeo! I am so impressed by those eight seconds of hell. I aspire to create a tumult like that. Just give me a bull!" Not what you'd call a delicate gal.
At 47, Streb is one of the most daring choreographers of her generation, or, for that matter, of any generation. In fact, the term choreographer, as applied to Streb, is somewhat limiting. She is a single-minded thrill seeker, a pursuer of dangerous challenges, and an on-again, off-again friend of gravity. With her 12-year-old company Ringside, Streb has been pushing and redefining the boundaries of dance with works that owe as much to competitive sports and the circus as to the terpsichorean muse. Her daredevil brand of movement even has a special name: Popaction.
As a young student of ballet and modern dance at SUNY Brockport in the early '70s, Streb was not for long impressed by attitude turns and grands jetés: "I enjoyed training my body, but artistically, I thought it was a little silly. If I was going to do a movement, I felt I should know what it means. It didn't resonate for me. So I decided I needed to come up with something else."
After a brief stint in San Francisco, Streb rode her motorcycle ("the Easy Rider legacy," she says) back to New York City, where she began to experiment with a new, more utilitarian movement vocabulary. One of her very first pieces was called "Fall Line," a duet set on an artificial hill with a 40-degree incline. The extremely constrictive nature of this set allowed Streb to choreograph by a process of elimination: Intellectual choice yielded to the physical functions of what could not be done.
The slope in "Fall Line," which Streb constructed herself, was the first in a series of many such set pieces through which Streb endeavored to explore and defy gravity. As she continued training her body and testing the boundaries of velocity, stamina, and flight, her movement vocabulary grew in size and refinement. Today, there are more than a dozen pieces in Ringside's repertoire, ranging from the bold to the totally fearless.
In the stunning "Up!," presented this past week at the Metrodome, an Olympic-size trampoline, a set of parallel bars suspended 20 feet above the ground, and two large scaffolds play host to six Ringsiders, who bounce between the elements like a bevy of errant electrons. With a spring power of 30 feet, the trampoline transforms the muscly performers into veritable projectiles. At one point during the exhausting 12-minute piece ("After three minutes of this work, you're dead," Streb explains), one of the men springs up and down about 10 times, on each take achieving a perfect horizontal line in the air and alternately landing prone then supine. This looks easier than it actually is. "The horizontal line is much more complicated than the vertical," Streb says, launching into a long, passionate explanation. "You have to maintain and engage your alignment, rather than stiffen your body. And you sort of squeeze your musculature right before landing, especially if you are landing on a hard surface. Otherwise, you're in trouble. You could land chest first, which then causes a whiplash through the entire body."
Needless to say, Streb and her eight-strong crew train hard year-round. Most of the performers have strong dance backgrounds and take daily ballet and modern classes. Weight training is also a major element of their conditioning program, with an individualized regimen devised to strengthen each dancer's "weak links." But no amount of weightlifting can really prepare you for diving flat on your face. The rehearsal process is there for that. "We've developed a technique to take the hit," Streb says. "You just have to practice it."
Various equipment--poles, harnesses, aerial platforms, all of Streb's devising--plays a prominent role in the Ringside repertoire. Her newest piece, "Lever," co-commissioned by the Walker, involves two anti-gravity devices, based on a counterweighted lever system. This reduces the weight of each attached dancer to about 12 pounds, allowing her to dance on both floor and ceiling with equal facility. Juxtaposing two weightless dancers with three grounded ones, Streb creates an environment where upside-down becomes a question of mere perspective.
Had you asked Streb 20 years ago what her artistic vision was, she would have answered "making humans fly." In most of her latest work, that vision has been realized in increasingly unpredictable ways, and with "Lever," she has taken on a whole new set of challenges. "The floor is such an insistent departure and arrival point," Streb says. "It's a whole other universe when you are weightless."
Elizabeth Streb and Ringside perform Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden of the Walker Art Center. Both performances are free.
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