Dancers have been trying to take flight since dance was created; they spring up, they sail through the air, they dive, they vault, they flip, they swing from trapezes. But alas, dancers have never actually flown, right?
That's what you think. Brooklyn-based choreographer Elizabeth Streb, a fifty-something spike-haired maverick with a MacArthur "genius" award to her name, has a different view. Her intrepid STREBdance company changes the whole way we look at leaping: The troupe members, working in the bottomless framework of Streb's circus-inspired, gravity-defying PopAction technique, willingly take the plunge again and again, flying into mats, walls and trampolines like torpedoes. Thump. Thud. Slam. Don't even try asking this lady what her insurance bill looks like.
In her new work, Wild Blue Yonder, Streb and her Evel Knievel wannabes celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight by literally pulling the floor out from under themselves. "Down" isn't always down for them, thanks to uniquely engineered sets. STREB will perform the work Sunday in Boulder at Macky Auditorium as part of CU's Artist Series.
Streb says there are people out there willing to become professional trajectories, but they require certain qualities. "A lot of bodies could do it physically, but few can handle it emotionally or psychologically," she says. "You watch for the person who smiles when the impact happens. Basically, they need to have an appetite for intense physical experiences." Like skateboarder Tony Hawk and his ilk, STREB-worthy dancers take leaps of faith daily. "Injuries happen often -- mostly bruises, and twisted fingers and toes, and black eyes, and sports injuries," Streb notes matter-of-factly. "Fear is ever-present in all the dancers. That is one of the reasons that a STREB show is so emotional. The memory, history and act of choice embedded in every move is right out there, on the face and in the heart of every move that every body accomplishes." Sound, she adds, also contributes to the overall effect. Every thud and exhaled breath is miked. "Our entire stage set is a musical instrument."
STREB straddles the line, then, between dance and extreme sport. And it's also a movement system: PopAction requires a deep understanding of how muscles move and interact. "To initiate action, we pop our muscles, and then the skeleton follows that impulse," Streb illustrates. "Because we are interested in flying, we need more power to be generated more rapidly than the skeleton can accomplish. The muscles, the nervous system and the chemistry within the body can create explosive synaptic action, way faster and harder than a more pedestrian system of movement. Our goal is to create unpredictable movement, surprise action.
"The other idea behind the term PopAction is that it is a populist form," Streb continues. "Everyone can understand the body -- going wild, hitting hard, falling, being in the air, flying. I think a real move, if we can locate it and accomplish it, is understood deeply by every sentient creature on earth, even mammals and insects." To that end, she's opened the Action Lab, where even young kids, who seem to innately understand her points, learn to bounce alongside the adults.
Not content merely to train folks to hurl themselves into space, Streb is also a dean's special scholar at NYU, earning a degree that combines elements of physics, philosophy and architecture. The proposed master's in Time and Space is aimed at facilitating her unique dance strategies, as well. Streb, you begin to realize, isn't the sort to take no for an answer. And she hopes her audiences will follow suit.
"It's like someone doing magic, really slow," Streb concludes. "You'd see the trick -- it would ruin everything. During a STREB show, I want you to not be able to catch your breath."