Wham bam Streb.
Her life has not been short of honors--among them a MacArthur "genius" award, a Bessie Award, a position as Dean's Special Scholar at New York University, where she pursues studies in higher mathematics, physics, architecture, and philosophy--but the trip upstate was resonant. It would have been a visit home, but home isn't there anymore, although she grew up in nearby Rochester. Streb's adoptive parents are long dead and her girlhood parochial schooling long fled, though she still loves the saints she learned about back then. She now includes among their number some heretical additions, such as Evel Knievel and the tightrope walker Phillipe Petit.
At 53, the flame-haired, black-pleather-wearing Streb--three parts muscle and sinew, one part hair mousse (to keep her fauxhawk haircut energized)--lives in a downtown New York loft with an Abyssinian cat (on permanent rat patrol) and the feminist journalist Laura Flanders. Her days begin early--teaching 8:00 A.M. classes--and end late, with performances (her own company's, or seeing someone else's), backstage visiting, and dinners with supporters. Keeping her company, STREB (formerly STREB/Ringside), going keeps Streb on the move. Since 1985, it's been her laboratory, and her vehicle (see "Action and Reaction," DANCE MAGAZINE, March 1990, page 54, and "Elizabeth Streb: Lady of Action," DANCE MAGAZINE, November 1999, page 60).
Even after she started out on her radical quest--a movement pilgrimage, with freedom from gravity the holy grail--Streb continued to take dance classes, as she'd done since her college graduation. From Margaret Jenkins and Cunningham technique--Cunningham master teacher June Finch remains a close friend to this day--she went on to study with Viola Farber, and then, counterintuitively and historically backward, to Cecchetti technique, which she began learning as she was founding her own transgressive vocabulary. Her ballet teachers included Margaret Craske, Janet Panetta, Diana Byer, and Jocelyn Lorenz, a celebrated roster that explains, at least in part, Streb's wide acquaintance in the dance world.
Her own high-velocity, high-impact performance pieces proceeded not only in reaction to ballet--she reveals in her choreography the very effort ballet dancers labor to conceal--but to postmodernism. "I am interested," she says, "in what makes movement imperative. To me, every action is acceptable, and a diagonal and a curve are their own subjects. I had a lack of faith in the decorativeness of postmodern dance. And I don't believe in useless design."
That practicality is expressed in the STREB set, a box truss that includes lights, sound--the dancers' impacts are amplified, to thrilling effect--and whatever walls, mats, and "aerial occupation" devices a current show demands. When the company's not on the road, the equipment is housed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in STREB's new home, a converted mustard factory that looks like a giant garage. Under current renovation but already open, the space--100 feet deep, 30 feet high, 50 feet wide--incorporates a 200-seat theater. Clerestory windows bring in light, as does a front wall of glass brick. Here Streb teaches and rehearses, with the door always open to the community.
And here a visitor can see, in action, the STREB moves--and the Streb way, which is without pretense. She does not believe in make-believe, or role-playing, or acting, or motivation, or gender-specific movement assignments, or stories, or music. Her dancers appear--just as the choreographer did before retiring from performance--as themselves, no different on set or off. They do things that Streb finds real--moves called dominoes, slices, ex-flips, inside-outs, sparkles, pinwheels, sidelines, and slams.
"People wax poetic about what a rond de jambe is," Streb says, "but a fall, too, is, in its requisite form, a move that has a lot of parts to it. There's a purist's kind of beauty in a structure that comes from some place that's functional."
Her dancers share Streb's rigorous turn of mind and her taste for visceral thrills. Despite sixteen-foot flat-falls and forceful running leaps cruelly ended by walls, the dancers are matter-of-fact about what they do. "Actually," says Streb, "they stay with me a surprisingly long time."
Cool, elegant, blonde Chantal Deeble, for instance, is a three-year STREB veteran. She started dancing at 18, with, as she says, "the intent to be a modern dancer--no ballerina dreams or desires!" To her early training as a gymnast and swimmer and a general enthusiasm for sports, Deeble added ballet and modern dance classes. As is typical of STREB members, she's motivated by the desire not only to move, but to "express and push" herself.
"On a purely physical level, the work is tough," she says, "especially when you first join. But the body grows accustomed to the demands put on it--just like any athlete--and at that point the work feels good. It is not necessarily more detrimental to the body than other more traditional dance forms.
"There are elements of danger inherent in the work," Deeble allows, "but our approach when rehearsing is extremely safe. We look out for each other and take no unnecessary risks. We go step by step when trying to achieve a new move or technique. Accidents can and do happen, but many are avoided with forethought. Some perceive what we do as violent; I don't see it that way. Streb's choreography requires each individual to test his or her physical and mental limits," Deeble says. "It is incredibly rewarding to confront a fear and overcome it, but mainly I got interested in STREB the first time I saw the company and thought, `I want to do that!'"
So do many who see it, children in particular--although there is the occasional "'fraidy cat" adult viewer who prefers to see the whole STREB enterprise as a captivating metaphorical construct. "Children who see our work don't perceive any violence," says Deeble, who along with the rest of the company meets informally with audiences after performances. "They just want to get up and try it!"
Indeed, children adore STREB, and are part of its programs at the garage. They trust the action implicitly. They don't trouble about the meaning; it simply finds them.
Streb lets kids know that these moves are not something they should try at home and that the work is completely rehearsed. But really, they know that already, from watching. What do they learn? What we all do. That it is good to be brave and true, and to have trustworthy companions. That before you begin an adventure, you check your equipment, and you check in with your partners. They learn to have courage, to take heart. And they learn to think before they leap. These are useful lessons for these times, and Dr. Elizabeth Streb loves to teach them.
STREB AT A GLANCE
STREB/RINGSIDE, INC. 51 NORTH 1ST STREET BROOKLYN, NEW YORK 11211 718.384.6491; FAX 718.384.6490
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Elizabeth Streb
* 6 dancers, ages 21-33; 5'3"-5'10" in height. Terry Dean Bartlett, Nikita Maxwell, Chantal Deeble, Weena Pauly, Aaron Henderson, Jonah Spear; 3 apprentices: Olivia Lerhman, dee Ann Nelson, Ali Psiuk
* 52-week contract; non-union company
* Open auditions about once every other year
* Music consists of commissioned works and scores augmented by sounds created during performances.
* Venues: Range from European opera houses to the boardwalk at Coney Island, including Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal, the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center, the Seattle Sonics Key Arena, and the Houston Astrodome
* Touring: Nationally and internationally
* Open classes: Pop Action classes for professional dancers; Personal Best; and Kid Action classes teaching Pop Action techniques to children ages 7-14
* Scholarships: None
* Outreach: Master classes and Kid Action on tour, and with neighborhood schools including Kids in Control at home
Elizabeth Streb founded her company in 1985. The choreographer pares her work down to its essentials, incorporating body slams, rebounds, near collisions, and the defiance of gravity in a style she calls "pop action." Because Streb believes in "the intersection of art and life," the company performs her works (the repertoire is entirely Streb's) in unconventional locations as well as traditional venues.
Nancy Dalva is the senior writer/editor for 2wice magazine and a longtime contributor to DANCE MAGAZINE.
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|Title Annotation:||Elizabeth Streb of Streb extreme dance company|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2003|
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