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.”
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 Wander that 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.
The equipment—as with all of Streb’s paraphernalia from her earliest days—designs the movement, suggesting what’s possible and what’s not. The climax of the evening involves what the program terms a “Whizzing Gizmo” (designed by Noe and Evan Espana). It’s an immense yellow wheel, set on edge within a framework, except that a sort of pyramid of bars sticks out of one side (imagine a bottomless measuring cup with an openwork handle). The wheel is wide enough for two people to work side by side inside it. In “action events” titled Promenade and SuperPosition, the breathing, sweating action heroes turn a hamster’s exercise into a carnival of virtuosity. Joseph begins inside the wheel—walking to make it turn, beginning to run, to leap, to flip, and then to run backward. The others crouch and watch, springing in and out two by two or in teams. Donaldson leaps high inside the wheel; Fabio Tavares strolls breezily in the opposite direction on the outer rim, with nothing to hang onto. People clamber into the “handle,” swing off the wheel. Ami Ipapo is the first to fly into the air and land on a distant high mattress. Did Lindsay actually do a back flip on the outer rim? In the end, they let the Gizmo’s momentum die down, and he and Jackie Carlson, feet planted wide apart, make it sway gently side to side, like a clock face that tilts with its own pendulum.
If it’s true that watching others move makes our own muscles fire, we’ve had a workout. Streb cooks up a vibrant stew that’s part circus, part sporting event, part theater, part student recital, and part scrupulous time-motion-energy investigation. The neighborhood sniffs the aroma and crowds in the door.
Circles figure subtly and mythically in Tapasya, Rajika Puri’s striking new attempt to mold India’s Bharata Natyam and Odissi dance-theater styles into a more contemporary Western mode of storytelling. Her theme is the Ganges—the river and the goddess whose name it bears. The river—where it comes from, where it flows—shimmers as a watery metaphor for the cycle of birth, life, transcendence, death, and rebirth. But Puri also posits a link between the god Shiva and the sadhus. These ascetics tie some of their matted hair into a small knot on top of their heads, just as Shiva once bound the goddess Ganga in order to keep the water she embodied from flooding the earth. And in luscious colored film footage by Greg Emetaz (including photos by Thomas Kelly and Svrinivas Kuruganti), shown before and during the performance, we see today’s sadhus swarming into Benares (Varanasi) to purify themselves in the Ganges.
The various Sanskrit epics tell of the river’s origin and Ganga’s exploits differently. For Tapasya (meaning heat, ecstasy), Puri has slid several tales together and recounted them through dancing, pantomime, and words—some of these spoken in English by her while moving, others sung by the superb vocalist Shobana Raghavan (accompanied by John Hadfield on percussion), still others on tape. She and members of her talented ensemble—Aditi Dhruv, Shobana Ram, and, especially, Nirali Shastri (who also choreographed two of Puri’s solos)—play different roles at different times. For instance, at one point, Dhruv portrays the god Brahma, who swivels his four heads so wildly to gaze at a seductive woman that he grows a fifth one. Puri, as Shiva in disguise, abducts that extra head, which sticks to his hand (“Big mistake!” chorus Ram and Shastri, who’ve been showing us with their gestures Brahma’s creation of the animal kingdom and of the very woman he’s ogling). In one magical sequence, Puri depicts both the lecherous advances of King Sagara and the flirtatious shyness of Ganga, who was, some say, born of sweat collected from Indra by Brahma (are you with me?)
There are no fancy traditional costumes in Tapasya; the women wear handsomely draped black pants and strappy cotton tops (different colors for each of the work’s three main sections). Emetaz’s films and Kathy Kaufmann’s rich lighting are decoration enough. There are no extended dance numbers either. We see small episodes that display the rhythmically stamping feet, the flashing gazes, precisely wheeling arms, and articulate fingers of Bharata Natyam and Odissi (that most seductive of styles). In this elegantly arranged narrative, everything flows into everything else. Puri has written the words that she speaks, and she is a marvelous performer in every way. I can’t help wishing, though, that the text were not quite so packed with words, and that program notes could be provided to outline the fantastic exploits. I struggle to bend my mind around the image of a king’s 60,000 sons tiptoeing around a meditating holy man to locate a kidnapped horse of major significance. No wonder they disturbed his meditation, and he retaliated by burning them to ashes! When a descendant of theirs begged Shiva to release Ganga to Earth (in monitored amounts), it was because he wanted to moisturize his ancestors back to life.
In the most powerful performance of the evening, Puri appears in reddened darkness, speaking in a deep, guttural voice. Gradually she materializes—her face marked with ashes, her hair loose below a topknot, her shirt red, and red beads around her neck. She is more powerful, fiercer, and more frightening than the evil laughter heard on tape. In this scene, she is speaking-acting out the struggle between gods and demons for amrita, the nectar of immortality. I think I see her represent the two opposing forces pulling on a giant snake to churn up the sea of milk and release amrita in its foam. I thought I heard her say that the waters of the Ganges turn to nectar every 12 years. And surely that’s Coleridge’s Kubla Khan that she’s quoting: “For he on honeydew hath fed and drunk the milk of Paradise.” Her colleagues, costumed and coiffed like her, assist in a ceremony involving a glowing trident, and at the end, the stage is flooded with blue light and images of water. Whew!
I run home, exhilarated, if slightly baffled, and try to find a path through the beguiling seductions, marital wrangles, deceptions, and holy manifestations that the gods of the Hindu pantheon thrive on. No sacred water for me, alas, just a refreshing dive into Google.