Pushing the Boundaries of Fear with STREB Extreme Action Company

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When is a dance not merely a dance? How do you create a show that changes all the time, yet still has a name, and sections, and a recognizable shape?

With their latest production, FORCES, the STREB Extreme Action Company is trying to create what director Elizabeth Streb calls “a perfect action show, that also has its version of a narrative.” Divided into thirteen pieces, termed “action events” with titles like Shake, Crush, Fall and Fly, the performance is peppered with big screen video clips of Streb sharing her thoughts about movement. The combination of her heady ideas, industrial inspired music, experimental video and mechanical equipment give it all “a kind of mad scientist” vibe…

I watch this show with my ten-year-old son, Josiah. We have seen the company perform several times before and have observed the evolution of their repertoire, their chemistry as a group. The performance is perfect for kids his age. We are encouraged to make noise, take pictures, share videos, show our enthusiasm in many ways. He’s sitting in the front row this time, and I’m diagonally behind him. He exclaims out loud throughout the evening, sometimes exchanging words with the man seated next to him.

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Members of STREB Extreme Action Company walking on the surface of the earth in “Spatial Rift,” where Josiah says, “They crushed Hawaii.”

The company’s home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is called S.L.A.M. – short for Streb Lab for Action Mechanics. It is indeed a laboratory for the exploration of ideas that Elizabeth Streb has been putting forth for over 30 years. She is interested in the pure elements of movement and action. This show explores these forces in the most fundamental way. Stripped down to their essence, housed in carefully constructed containers defined by custom designed pieces of equipment such as plexiglass walls and revolving platforms, a few carefully chosen movements are executed repeatedly in overlapping, echoing shapes until they lose significance as individual pieces of choreography – bodies slamming against one another, or exploring the centrifugal force of a whirling centrifuge as they jump and tumble into and out of the circle. They become part of a larger pattern, physical mantras, unleashed, exploded, again and again, until we as audience members are caught up in the cumulative effect of their sheer velocity, direction, impact.

There is one particularly scary piece called “Crush” that involves a steel beam, suspended from a heavy chain on a movable winch. It is spun around and around, sometimes raised, sometimes lowered, while dancers jump over and duck or roll under it. Sometimes the chain hangs down straight, sometimes it swings back and forth. At all times we are aware of the beam’s weight, it’s capacity to do great damage upon impact to flesh. Josiah says, “This music sounds like you’re gonna die.” While two dancers stand on either end of it, pushing it around and around so it revolves in an ever quickening circle, other dancers sit in its path, lying back quickly split seconds before the beam approaches their heads. It is a precision operation, a nail biting, adrenaline rush of an experience.

In one piece, “Flying,” dancer Jackie Carlson is strapped into a revolving contraption that makes her soar around and around in a wide arc, suspended in a harness that allows her to careen through the air like a graceful bird, but also enables her to roll and turn as she is being propelled around the circle. At moments she dips down to earth, then jumps up and over the heads of the other dancers who dive out of her way. She is a human physics experiment, a revolving, mechanically enhanced ballerina in space. It is hypnotic, exhilarating and intoxicating to watch her.

At intermission, I chat with Elizabeth about the show. I tell her that I perceive so many more layers in the company now. The level of interaction between the dancers has become more sophisticated, and subtle. The ever changing nature of these pieces has been deepened by the introduction of a narrative, developed with associate director Robert Woodruff… it’s a story of experimentation. Streb says, “… if I get tired of a move, I throw it out… modern dance eulogizes and holds sacred the great repertories, but action needs to be shifted all the time…” I say to her, it’s just like the kind of poetry I’ve been writing that stops on the edge of something, doesn’t end on a complete thing. She says, “…maybe it’s about what you’re wondering about, not what you know… why do it if you know what you’re gonna do? It’s about the exploration.”

Yes.

A week after we see the show, I have a conversation with Associate Artistic Director Fabio Tavares da Silva, who is also one of the company’s dancers. I want to know more about these amazing athletic daredevils who comprise the company. Although they hail from diverse backgrounds including dance, theater and gymnastics, they are all “adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers” with “a pretty high threshold for pain.” In order to be inducted into the company, dancers must pass a three day audition process, and it’s always interesting to see “… who is coming back on the third day.” Although the work is clearly physically demanding, it would seem that the true test takes place on the mental level, where each person confronts his or her own primal fears of pain, injury… and death…

The current configuration of company members has been in place for two years, with some dancers there as long as five or six. Fabio has been there for ten. He has seen people come and go, and understands the difficulty of staying inside this kind of psychologically challenging work that goes directly against the survival instinct. “We’re all there because we love what we do.” And it doesn’t hurt that Elizabeth has so much charm and charisma, that people are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to give her what she wants, to fulfill her vision. There are  magic moments in there, and those who can would like to be alive inside the hyperkinetic events that are the product of their collective process.

The show continues to morph as the relationships between the dancers deepen and Elizabeth endlessly tinkers with movement, music and new pieces of equipment. Her desire to touch people’s hearts with the work is enhanced by the dancer’s deep trust and absolute commitment to her and each other. Fabio’s circus training and his love of playing and having fun is matched by the rest of the company. There is a levity in their performance now that was only hinted at before. “Now it’s like a different kind of explosion – joy, courage, beauty and endurance…” To be part of this collective, visceral experience an an audience member is an opportunity not to be missed.

Afterwards, I ask Josiah what he thought of the performance. “The show’s got more pizzazz to it, more flips and tricks… The girder thing… I’m scared someone’s gonna get hurt really badly. It’s like an inch close… makes me too nervous, but I still love it so much… it’s actually one of my favorite parts. It’s like no, don’t do it, don’t do it! Oh, my god they made it…”

Tickets to the current edition of FORCES are still available here for the final weekend of performances this Thursday-Sunday, April 25-28.

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