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'That," says the little girl, "looks like a hamster wheel." Right, except that it's 12 feet in diameter, and spins two feet off the floor. Soon the girl, her sister, and their grandparentsvisitors to the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM), the Williamsburg home of STREB Extreme Actionare watching moves beyond the wildest dreams of all hamsters and most dancers. The family's here because after out-of-town performances choreographer Elizabeth Streb invites spectators to watch rehearsals if they're in New York. The company's new show, "Streb vs. Gravity," plays tonight, Friday, and Saturday at the La Guardia Drama Theater, opening Lincoln Center Festival 2006's three-week wealth of dance events. Today, Streb's "action engineers" are rehearsing Revolution.
Gloved and sneakered, Terry Dean Bartlettthe group's associate artistic directorwalks inside the wheel to set it turning, grabs a strut, swings out, rides the outer rim down, drops off, and swings back on running. Soon seven others are vaulting on and off, riding underneath, and performing moves with names like "Hercules," "stack-up," and "maple syrup." Suddenly, those inside the wheel walk facing one way, while on top of it, Bartlett strides facing the other way. Revolution is hair-raising entertainment. It makes centripetal force visible and highlights theories of gravity more complex than Newton's up-down one.
The huge open space, formerly a mustard company warehouse, is a lab for experimenting with human bodies and ingeniously engineered devices. Mats of all sizes and thicknesses are stacked around. Company members use remotes to raise and lower trusses that hold the equipment. Two bolted-down pillars anchor a taut, three-inch-wide horizontal truck strap for Streb's Ripple. When the dancers aren't leaping onto that strap, balancing atop a rocking half-wheel in Tip, or falling like logs facedown onto the mats, they're fastening bolts, checking cables, or cleaning the blue chroma-key surface for Moon. Where's Bartlett? About 12 feet overhead: "I'm just dusting the truss."
Laura Flanderslecturer, author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, host of RadioNation on Air America, and Streb's partner of 15 yearssays, "If politicians cultivated their communities, their constituencies, like Elizabeth cultivates her communitymeaning the people with whom she lives and works as well as the people that come to her showsthis would be a much better place."
The new show's program credits Flanders as librettist; she also developed text for the 1999 Action Heroes. (To Streb, an action hero is someone like Annie Edson Taylor: A hundred years ago the retired high school teacher was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.) This time, projected textsbrief quotations (from physicists, mathematicians, and others), formulas, and statisticsfunction as what Flanders calls "brain prodders" to let the audience in on ideas that motivate Streb. That Flanders is doing this points up the ways in which Streb's choreography (dubbed POPaction) has developed in scale and complexity since 1981 when she first slung poles around or clambered up an inclined plane and slid down.
Revolution: The War on Gravity, Choreographed by Elizabeth Streb
photo: Tom Caravaglia
That concept animates Ripple, a ropewalking act on the waist-high yellow truck strap; like many of Streb's works, it's a witty and imaginative blend of dance, circus, and extreme sports. The strap appears to barely move as the performers maneuver on and off it, but at each human impact, video cameras set up near its terminals project on the backdrop a yellow frenzy of vibration. The visual effect embodies one of the choreographer's aims: to "present action as viscerally as it's actually occurring experientially in the dancers' bodies." (The "oof"s audible as the dancers slam into the strap all at once and hit the floor beneath it convey impact pretty expressively too.)
The only accompaniment for Streb's early dances was the clanking, banging, squeaking sounds made by bodies contacting amplified equipment (plus the performers' shouted signals). As Bartlett points out, much of the newer equipment doesn't make much noise, so he and Recon (Tom Lawson and Clark Russell) are creating sound scores. The new show also involves video. Live feed of moving dancers lying down on the blue floor, when projected vertically on the back wall, creates gravitational confusion. Videos showing close-ups of joints illuminate the body's grammar, its syntax for exploding motion. None of these theatrical elements, however, detract from Streb's commitment to unadorned action, to powerful, direct moves that happen at the speed necessary to accomplish a given task.