Elizabeth Streb: Dancing with Danger
It’s rare for an artist to disavow her own genre, but Elizabeth Streb may well be the most fervently anti-dance choreographer you’ve ever met.
Elizabeth Streb is an award-winning choreographer known for experimental, risk-taking works requiring great athleticism, acrobatics, and courage from her performers. She won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1997.
Born in 1952 in Rochester, New York, Streb studied at the State University of New York at Brockport. She danced with several experimental dance companies in San Francisco before founding her own company, STREB, in New York in 1975. Her work has been commissioned by Lincoln Center Festival, the Whitney Museum of Art, Musée D’Orsay, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and was featured as part of celebrations surrounding the 2012 London Olympics. A feature-length documentary Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity (2014) incorporated footage of the London performances and archival recordings from Streb’s career.
For more than 30 years, the STREB Extreme Action Company has been the vehicle for the most dangerous artistic vision of a founder exhausted by the predictability of dance.
Elizabeth Streb: You can’t hedge your bets, that’s the worst thing you can do in STREB. If somebody hedges or pauses before they’re going, that’s the most dangerous thing. And so everybody does have to be a team member, there are no real soloists. Because it’s not really about that, it’s about what does a whole image look like and feel like to the audience, the impossibility of the image.
Streb is a MacArthur genius, Guggenheim fellow and a recipient of a steady decades-long flow of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. By default, her category is dance, but her troop contains no dancers. They are action heroes who practice pop action.
Dancer: Her curiosity in action, and discovering what true action is, I’ve only seen with STREB.
Dancer: The notion that humans can fly, it’s really different just to come in here and know that the ground and the air have equal terrain for us to tread us.
Streb: We fly, but we land. And I think in the landing, in the crash, is where the potential content of the rise and fall and rise of the human form might be contained. That’s drama, it’s the failure of flight, is the most exciting moment.
AJC: And what about ballet? Surely there’s a failure of flight every 10 seconds in ballet?
Streb: But they’re so graceful, it’s annoying! I think they’re artificializing gravity, they’re pretending it’s not there. I don’t approve of that. And even though a proper arabesque is the golden mean, it’s got the right radius and it’s perfect, and the rhythm is musically, absolutely apt to whatever they’re dancing to, I think it is a decorative form. It’s about adornment to me. And displaying the body as if that body had the capacity to be a deepened holder of content, which I don’t think bodies alone do.
But Streb does believe in using all body types to their fullest potential.
Dancer: I’m partially a dancer, I took a little bit of modern, a little bit of ballet, but I never felt the woman of my size and of my color, the things that I tend to pursue. I never felt like dance was something that welcomed that difference. They always want the female to be super skinny and in a sense, really frail and really, you know, like long, straight hair and look beautiful, and here you’re allowed to be yourself. She really appreciates massive dancers, I think the work calls for a lot of meat so that you can withstand the impact and do it over and over and over again and survive that kind of work.
AJC: Dehabilitation seems to be a badge of honor in the ballet world. Every ballet dancer walks around hurting all the time. Is there any badge of honor in getting injured in what you do?
Streb: No, but there is a badge of honor in the fact of getting hurt and going on.
And Streb performers do get hurt, because what they’re doing is dangerous, by design.
Streb: If it’s not dangerous, and if it’s not out of your comfort zone, then it is not an event anyone will ever perceive or recognize or experience physically. It’ll always be visual or oral. So for me, the project of STREB is to present extreme action onstage and have it be as it should be, a phenomenological event. There’s a whole school of people who really think what I’m doing is unacceptable, I’m sure. And they sometimes share that with me. Maybe for that reason, that I’m hurting people, that I’m causing people to get hurt, which happens sometimes, myself included. But the idea that you are born, and we all have this responsibility to use our talents, and by the time you’re done with your journey, you have done it, you’ve used it. At that last second when you wake up and you’re about to die, you wanna have that feeling: “Yes, I did it!” What does a human have to do to have no regrets at that second?
New works are often born out of an expiration of the gravity-defying possibilities of some strange piece of equipment, such as this 21-foot STREB prop, the spinning ladder.
Streb: I wanna know if someone can climb both sides at the same time, what would happen? And when you get to the end, can you just go around to the other side, like an internal climb, while it’s whipping around. So I want all nine dancers climbing, even when they’re falling. That’s never happened, but something else happens, and I go, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect that to happen!” Like, I have hundreds of questions with every piece of equipment, and they do it, and it just leads to—it leads down the rabbit hole. So it’s really just stabbing in the dark, pretty much continually.
Though all this uncertainty could usually be a cause for fear, not so for STREB. Fear for her is just more information.
Streb: It’s a messaging system, that we have more work to do before we try something, that I can’t go that fast right now, it’s a plethora of knowledge. The fear is just the marking system that “Oh, the alarm bell goes out,” and “I have some more work to do here.”
AJC: So it’s a combination of reducing fear, and also getting to be better at the things so there’s less to fear?
Streb: I don’t think it’s that you’re less afraid, I think it’s that you know you can do this. And some days you go up there and you’re like the first time you went up, and it’s terrifying, but you still know you can do it. And you know you will take that first step off the edge.
Dancer: She likes to push people to the limit. She wants you to know what boundaries are.
Dancer: A time I was pushed to my limits is every day I’m in here, if I’m being honest.
Dancer: Personally, I found that my boundaries are, were a lot farther than I thought they were, and that’s been very surprising and a great journey for me for the past nine years.
Streb: I think fear is complicated. It really is about staying in the moment, and I think the practice of staying in the moment erases your literal experience of fear while you’re doing this moment, the next moment, the next moment. I think fear comes when you jump ahead to what could happen. It’s like a lurch into the future, or lurch into the past when you got hurt the last time. And so I think the conquering of fear happens when you just stay in the moment and do the right thing. And all of a sudden, it’s the next moment, it’s the next moment, and the next moment,. And when you’re able to psychologically, emotionally, physically, spiritually do that, and it hurts, and it’s not a good idea for anyone else and all that. That’s the highest plane of existence I can imagine.
AJC: It’s almost the opposite of that thing of, when you are in mortal danger, that your brain automatically starts to split everything into tiny, tinier fractions, which makes it feel like it’s going on for longer. It almost feels like you’re preparing for that moment, you’re rehearsing that moment.
Streb: Yeah, it does. And it’s sort of like a thing where you, actually, you have control over some things. Really? You’re completely out of control. You’re diving into your destiny and it’s not something you’re doing, it’s something you’re letting happen to you. And that’s really the magic of motion, I think. And it’s the magic of life, that you really, really have to allow yourself to say, “I’m letting something happen to me.”