Gravity-defying circus acts rarely induce chuckles. Funny is what clowns are for. In the work of Streb Extreme Action, daredeviltry— imaginatively approached—is a given, but wit is a gift. The performers in Elizabeth Streb’s earliest pieces often fumbled, dropped the ball, and started a move again. We everyday Joes knew what that was like and laughed in sympathy. In Streb’s more recent choreography, there’s practically no margin for error. Her nine superb dancer-athletes (“action engineers,” she calls them) must contend with structures like the giant hamster wheel in Revolution, the half wheel in Tip, and the horizontal truck strap in Ripple (all Lincoln Center Festival premieres); these have their own rules about momentum and the impact of flying bodies.
Yet Streb continues to punctuate images of gasp-inducing daring and beauty with provocative allusions and split-second jokes. In Orbit (also new), Ami Ipapo and Aaron Henderson, roped and harnessed, fly around the tall pole to which they’re connected, intersecting ingeniously as their supports coil about it (I especially love watching the two simply lie supine on air, swinging farther and farther from the pole as their ropes unwind). Yet amid the lovely images of freedom within limits, Streb has invented a playful if extremely difficult stunt: Ipapo, winched higher, jumps rope, first with her feet on the pole, then with her hands, over Henderson’s spiraling cord.
Ripple‘s low-wire act makes ironic allusions to ballet’s courtly assists during the performers’ forays across a stretched truck strap. But having shown that they can jump on unaided, perch a second, and jump off, they end with a bunch of crazy racing fumbles. Four people rotate Sarah Donnelly in a ballet attitude that unfolds into a 12-noon arabesque, but what Sleeping Beauty ballerina ever finished the “Rose Adagio” with her suitors by plonking face down onto a mat? In Ricochet (2004), not only do performers repeatedly run forward and launch themselves against a large transparent pane (amplified to stress the impact), they also press against it and slide down, mashing their faces into the kind of extreme distortions invisible in face-to-floor impact. In the terrifying 2004 Gauntlet, associate artistic director Terry Dean Bartlett, Christine Chen, Fabio Tavares Da Silva, Kevin Lindsay, deeAnn Nelson, Henderson, and Ipapo execute split-second group and individual transits between two large concrete blocks swinging at the ends of ropes; they do this so expertly that, perhaps to remind us how dangerous it is, they start letting blocks swing very near them before falling on their backs. They look as if they’ve been socked in the jaw—as they well might have been.
The new Moon is an extended thought-provoking joke about gravity. Six people perform lying down on a blue chroma-key floor while an overhead camera projects their images on the screen behind them. When they scrunch along on the floor, feet braced against its rear edge, their images walk clumsily upright on the wall. And their arduous maneuverings produce impossible illusory feats: athletes forming wobbly cantilevered pyramids, standing on a partner’s single upraised hand, or flying upward with no apparent source of propulsion.
The company’s new show, “Streb vs. Gravity,” could bedazzle even a veteran multitasker. Pop hits from several decades play before the show and during intermissions. The set credited to Michael Casselli emphasizes a red and blue color scheme and an eye-pleasing arrangement of the overlapping equipment. The performers wear a series of sports tights and fitted shirts in black with various colored crescent slashes (and vice versa). Shelly Sabel’s vivid lighting and performer-production designer Henderson’s video projections create visual effects that change for (and within) each number and morph between them, sending bright-colored shapes, drawings, letters, numbers, photographs, and colors dancing across the huge screen. The brief snatches of projected text (some by librettist Laura Flanders, others by scientists and mathematicians) swim and coil around and rush away too swiftly to be read if you’re watching the live performers intently. I don’t think I could have made out a line like this one by John Wheeler, “Mass grips space by telling it how to curve. Space grips mass by telling it how to move,” had I not already known it, and I missed grasping accurately a thought that entranced me—something about the moon’s potential to fall on the earth: “It just keeps missing.”
Sometimes only the whap of bodies on surfaces accompanies Streb’s pieces, as it did in her earlier days. But music plays along with most of the new ones, often to dramatic effect. Racing piano notes goad on the daringly timed flips and somersaults and dives of six dancers along Crash‘s narrow roadway of mats. A cello melody enhances the gentle rocking of Tip‘s half wheel, as Justin Burton and Ipapo edge carefully together along its flat top, and makes all five dancers—in profile and maintaining a stance perpendicular to the floor—look as if they were crossing the Delaware on a noble mission. Because Streb’s actions take whatever time they need, she can’t count on the dancers finishing on a given musical climax, so the selections (designed by Maxim Safioulline) mostly just fade out, which can be awkward.
Music also provides the ultimate ironic jolt. As the screen slowly tilts backward, slides forward, and lies flat to reveal the wheel for the finale, Revolution, the portentous brass chords and drumbeats of Richard Strauss’s Also Spracht Zarathustra thunder out. But the composer’s reference to Nietzsche and his superior human is also the epochal opening of the film 2001 and its outer-space-focused vision of mankind’s future. The music changes into something blander as Bartlett begins slowly walking within the wheel. But Streb has made her point. These dancers are pioneers and heroes; even as they thrill the watching audience with spectacle and theatricality, they’re testing what human beings can accomplish.