Elizabeth Streb Spins Her ‘Whizzing Gizmo’; Rajika Puri Dives Into the Ganges

When I first saw Elizabeth Streb’s work in the 1970s, she and her colleague Michael Schwartz were sliding down a slanted platform in the middle of Dance Theater Workshop, scrambling up it, and sliding down again. For quite a while. The piece satisfied all the current definitions of Minimalism. The movement was pared-down, basic; the materials were ordinary and unglamorized; the wooden ramp and the chanciness of impeded gravity necessitated the kind of small variations and adjustments implicit in any task.

From the start, Streb made you aware of human risk, the potential for error, the effects of momentum. Gradually she upped the ante. Her works became more complex and ambitious, until her company members were walking on walls, slamming their bodies onto mic’d surfaces, and rebounding off trampolines. But these people weren’t—and still aren’t—circus acrobats, aiming for per-stunt applause; the weave of her pieces is too dense and too variegated for that. Nourishing her wit and imagination on math and physics, aiming to push the limits of human endeavor, she refers to her dancers as “action heroes.”

Elizabeth Streb’s “action heroes” in "Catapult"
Tom Caravaglia
Elizabeth Streb’s “action heroes” in "Catapult"
Rajika Puri and Dancers in "Tapasya"
Stephanie Berger
Rajika Puri and Dancers in "Tapasya"

Now that she owns S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), her cavernous ground-floor space in Williamsburg, she has redefined the ways in which her work reaches the public. On a balmy Friday night during her spring season, Streb: Catapult!, the place is swarming with kids and their families, along with other admirers and first-timers. You can buy popcorn, cotton candy, soft drinks. There’s an intermission raffle. Greeting the crowd—the adults on chairs, a bunch of kids bouncing around on a tall stack of mattresses—Streb invites those who’re interested to drop by whenever they like and watch the company at work. People can send in ideas for 10-second dances and perhaps see them wittily realized. Some of the children here tonight are students in the “kidaction” classes that S.L.A.M. offers, and they get to show a bit of what they’ve learned—somersaults and cartwheels for the beginners, diving off a ramp for the more advanced (everyone gets applauded).

The only sound at Streb’s performances used to be the spectators’ gasps and the thwack of bodies against surfaces. Now composer David Van Tieghem and his assistant sound designer, Brandon Wolcott, have created music that supports each piece on the program with catchy rhythms and atmospheric power, and VJ-DJ Zaire Baptiste provides sound to bridge every gap and fill every moment, beginning with the one when you enter the door. Streb tells us it’s OK tonight to use our cell phones and yell our approval. The din is terrific.

There’s a sort of visual din too. Aaron Henderson’s vivid projection design shows us some numbers from overhead, occasionally multiplying images into kaleidoscopic patterns. Shapes swim in and out of focus. The short sentences in Laura Flanders’s libretto are projected kookily in addition to being heard on tape. You might want to memorize them for your next science test, as well as for a clue to the impending action (sample: “There is no stasis, only a sequence of situations”).

The 14-part Catapult is a very tight show. While one piece of equipment is being taken down and another erected on the main performing area, the action moves to another part of the room. In Crash and Burn, S.L.A.M.’s resident athletes flip and somersault and swan-dive over and onto one another (thunk!) along a padded blue avenue inches from a row of avid youngsters, while others skid in unlikely positions along a slick parallel path. In Translation (one of my favorites), Cassandre Joseph, Leonardo Giron Torres, and Kevin Lindsay—harnessed and roped—walk, run, and leap across a tall yellow wall behind part of the audience, somersaulting down when the ropes gradually lower them, or swinging out over our heads. Streb herself crouches down in an aisle to guide a foot-tall robot, who can manage a somersault and a pushup.

The main theme is revolution—that is, circular action. The floor of the stage is a padded blue circle with a smaller circle within (they both rotate—as one and separately). In WallRunTurn, the large plexiglass wall against which the performers slam themselves, hang from, and slide down in complex ways is also turning. So is the irregular grid of metal bars they nest in (sometimes piled up as if in a stack of bunk beds) and clamber up in Airlines. So is the horizontally suspended beam of Polar Wanderthat they must race around, ducking under it as it swings by or is lowered. Calling out to one another—“Stand!” “Fall!”—they miss being whacked in the head only by hair-trigger muscles and hairsbreadth timing (we flinch, gasp, scream). When there’s no climbing equipment, but the inner and outer floor circles are moving at different speeds, the danger is less, but aligning the running-stopping patterns is equally crucial. “Sa-rah! Sa-rah! Sa-rah!” yell the kids, and Sarah Donaldson, obviously a favorite teacher, manages a brief grin before she takes off again.

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