Quantum Leaps

Streb's action heroes explode the physics of motion

'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 grandparents—visitors to the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM), the Williamsburg home of STREB Extreme Action—are 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 Bartlett—the group's associate artistic director—walks 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."

Big wheels: Laura Flanders and Elizabeth Streb
photo: Fiona Aboud
Big wheels: Laura Flanders and Elizabeth Streb

Laura Flanders—lecturer, author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, host of RadioNation on Air America, and Streb's partner of 15 years—says, "If politicians cultivated their communities, their constituencies, like Elizabeth cultivates her community—meaning the people with whom she lives and works as well as the people that come to her shows—this 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 texts—brief quotations (from physicists, mathematicians, and others), formulas, and statistics—function 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.

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Revolution: The War on Gravity, Choreographed by Elizabeth Streb
photo: Tom Caravaglia
Sitting near the open door of SLAM, with the hubbub of two simultaneous kids' classes in the background, Streb talks about her earlier process as going through "a kind of Newtonian set of questions." Later pieces like Up(1995) and Drop (1999) introduced the element of "turbulence"; the not always predictable responses of trampolines and bungee cords offered new challenges (and required dancers trained in tumbling and gymnastics). The newest pieces of equipment, like the wheel, develop a momentum that affects what the dancers can accomplish. The questions that excite Streb have zoomed beyond Newton into quantum physics. (She's currently studying math, physics, and philosophy as the "Dean's Special Scholar" in NYU's graduate Draper Program.) Her idea of beauty, for instance, is two dancers, harnessed and roped to a pole, skillfully spiraling, unwinding, and connecting in orbits that change in speed and dimension. She's moved by thoughts like this from Brian Greene, author of The Fabric of the Cosmos: "When you walk, you ripple space."

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.

Flanders says that in their respective fields she and Streb "share an interest in the good question," one that may spark "useful thinking." She speaks of their common interest in human potential. "When I go to her work, I'm moved. I feel the world is going to hell in a handbasket, politicians can't agree, and then I watch people flying."

If flying were easy, what Streb does wouldn't be so affecting. We see the dancers' bravery in the face of risk, the split-second timing they have to master to avoid disaster, their intelligence, their endurance. They're not lab rats; they're colleagues and they behave that way. Ease isn't an option. "The quality of that turbulence" in her works is, Streb says, "as extreme as I can make it without bringing a small tornado in or having an earthquake occur." (Insurance costs her over $35,000 a year.)

She believes that if you really want to do something, you'll find a way to make it happen. Her company has had four touring engagements since mid March, and a three-week run of SLAMSHOW 7 in the Lab (one of two she stages annually). And in practical matters, she'll limit the risks. She wants to have a crew of technicians completely break down the wheel and put it together again before the tons of equipment get loaded into a 48-foot tractor trailer and carted up to La Guardia. She's rented the theater a week in advance.

As she sits by the door in her usual biker's leather, offering warm goodbyes and come-agains to the parents and kids leaving classes, I realize that the challenges she sets herself only seem quixotic. "I take the invisible," she says, "and implement it . . . take completely unique forces and throw a cloud of dust on them so they take shape. You can see the effect of action, but the ghost that is action has already left the room."


For information about Streb's performances, visit lincolncenter.org or call Centercharge at 212-721-6500.

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