Monthly Archives: April 2013

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.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

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Last August, my longtime friend Deb Margolin performed her magnificent play “Good Morning Anita Hill…” at the Todd Mountain Theater Project, a summer theater festival in Roxbury, NY that was founded by another old friend, Suzanne Pred-Bass. Having written previously about this play, I thought it would be a hoot to go see it again in its latest incarnation, and hang out with both of these women whom I’ve known for so many years.

I thought I’d share with you this letter I wrote to Deb when I was still thinking of going.

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Dear Deb,

I will tell you a funny story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

About six years ago, Suzanne produced Anne Bogart’s play Room at the Todd Mountain festival. In a fit of synergistic ecstasy, I decided that since I knew both women for many years from completely different tracks of my life, that I should drive up to the festival and review this performance, in the context of the larger implications for me and my creative life.

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Ellen Lauren in SITI Company’s “Room” – image courtesy of SITI Company

The Saturday morning of the show, I had taken Josiah [my son] to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party in a big playground in Stuy Town, in Manhattan, where he fell on his face and shredded it to pieces. Not to be deterred from my great creative moment, not to mention mom’s first sleepover away from husband and child since childbirth (he was 3 at the time), I decided it was only a flesh wound, and we could still go forward with the “boy’s weekend” (Dad, Josiah and Uncle Hector with pizza, movies, etc.) while Mom drove upstate for a weekend of creative and professional ecstasy. I even carried my bloody child in my arms around the aisles of Best Buy, purchasing the DVD’s I’d promised to bring home…

Despite Ivor almost having a heart attack upon seeing his wounded child and a very traumatic washing of the face that took all three adults to hold my son down in the tub, I remained steadfastly and completely disassociated from any maternal instincts and persisted on leaving for the trip.

Of course, I wept most of the way upstate, and ended up being late for the performance – never a good idea for an Anne Bogart show. She is a former army brat and notoriously strict about classes, rehearsals and shows starting on time. I was lucky I was able to gain entrance.

My interview with Anne went well. It was a great reunion. She and I knew each other back from the early 80’s when I appeared in an accidental production of a deconstructed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, called Sehnsucht, that came about when an earlier show we had been rehearsing lost its funding. It was a post modern tour de force, in the great tradition of Jerszy Grotowski and Squat Theater, occupying an entire three story vacant building in downtown Northampton, MA, where I was living at the time, both inside, in various rooms, looking out to the street from the glass storefront and then at the entire building from across the street. I played one of ten Blanches. Several years later, I was part of an experimental theater workshop we organized with Anne at St. John the Divine, and then still later I took a directing class with her at Playwright’s Horizons, where I was promptly declared one of her weekly favorites. So our history ran deep to my sense of what theater could be and who I could be in it. I was thrilled to catch up with her on the last decade plus of our lives.

That night, I guiltily enjoyed the opening night reception, chatting up complete strangers while trying to ignore the fact that my family was without me in the Bronx, and then even managed to indulge in a bottle of wine with Suzanne and a couple other members of her inner circle who were also invited to stay with her at her residence that night. I was totally immersed, a theater person, dammit, just like I thought.

I drove home the next day, filled with grand thoughts about how I would roll out this post-modern tale that wove together so many strands of my life. And when I arrived, I found grief, relief, and silent judgement. By the time the next morning rolled around, Josiah’s face wounds had become infected, dangerously close to his eye, and we had to take him immediately to the doctor. A round of topical and oral antibiotics later, disaster was averted, eyesight saved, but my conscience deeply, perhaps permanently scarred, like my son’s cheek, that still bares the faint outline of the injured swath of skin that ringed around the outside of his right eye in the shape of a #7.

I never wrote that article. I was never able to complete it. Instead, I was blocked by the guilt of choosing my own need to be an artist over the welfare of my child (an artificial and untrue dichotomy to be sure, but try and tell that to a guilty conscience). I also carried the sense of failure of having promised a piece of journalism to two creative people whom I admire deeply, who took time to speak to me about their life, their craft, their work, and expected me to deliver a story in return.

To this day, although I have pages of notes from my journal before, during and after that trip, the interview I did with Suzanne, the two I did with Anne, one upstate and one in NYC at a SITI Company rehearsal, I have never been able to bring myself to articulate the story I wanted to tell about how everything came together from my past and present to bring to life a show based on Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, whereupon a woman finds the joy of speaking her voice and baring her artist’s soul. Can’t you imagine the possibilities? With so many layers of symbolism, and parallel realities, and art imitating life imitating art??

So, you can understand why the fact that you are now doing your wonderful show up there stirs up certain desires in me to reconnect, bring the story to the present.

It’s actually not a very funny story. Not funny ha ha. But you know what I mean… Maybe this is just where it all led…

xoxoxo

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It turns out, I did not get up to see Deb’s play again last summer. Instead, I am left to share the vestiges of a vision where art and life intersect in many layered splendor, the desire to re-connect with old friends in this unique configuration relegated to a letter that describes what could have been…

Time for a Shift

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love and peace

We need some healing, y’all. The world is seriously off kilter. I’m just one person, making my way through my days here in NYC. I certainly do not have any genius ideas for creating world peace or anything like that, but I do know that there is way too much awful stuff going on all around the world, and we can’t just continue to sit back and do nothing.

As seems to always be the case, many of us Americans don’t really start thinking about these things until something hits home. As a people, we were shocked out of our relative sense of safety back on 9-11, and anytime some madman with a rifle lets loose on a bunch of innocents we perk up a bit. Now we have these senseless bombings at the Boston Marathon. But if we take a look around, we realize that shocking and senseless acts of violence happen around the world every single day.

Did you know that at the same time as we were reeling from the shock of the horrific explosions at the marathon yesterday, Iraqis were recovering from a dozen bomb blasts around the country that killed at least 55 people and left nearly 300 injured? It seems this Black Monday was a global phenomenon.

Are you feeling as overwhelmed by all of this as I am? How do we wrap our brains around this kind of willful disregard for human life, the willingness to indiscriminately kill and maim, as an expression of… what? Anger at whom? Hatred of whom?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there is much to be angry about in this world. Injustice, exploitation, cruelty, inequality – these imbalances are as old as history, and the messy process of trying to right the wrongs that befall entire peoples will continue well beyond this time. I am talking about how we co-exist with one another along the way.

The names and dates may change, but the dynamics boil down to some basic fundamentals. Someone (or a group of someones) has a grievance. Whether it’s warranted or not is almost besides the point. Whether or not the individual choosing to exact vengeance, or prove some other kind of point is sane is almost besides the point. If you or a loved one is on the receiving end of such treachery, it’s all insane to you.

What we are doing is not working. The cycle of violence is endless. We can’t keep hoping that things will change without doing something to facilitate that change.

There are those who espouse individual redemption as the path to peace. If we each meditate on peace, practice peace in our own lives, live a peaceful existence grounded in a loving kindness, then this spirit will spread and make itself known as a kind of soothing blanket for the world. I agree that this is part of it. However, I suggest that it goes further than that. We need a new way of dealing with the people and situations that anger us the most. The ones that make us want to kill.

What I’m saying is that we need to each take on the job of reaching out across our own personal boundaries of fear, anger and hostility to the people who upset us the most, and see what we can do to raise up some healing. I have no idea how to do this. It could be as simple as looking at the people who piss us off more than anything and trying to locate one, just one thing that you agree on, and then figuring out a way to build on that. It will mean swallowing pride, being uncomfortable, acting on faith, stepping through fear and taking a chance that you will be disappointed.

Total inactivity is no longer an option, people. Remember that adage, if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem? Don’t be a default part of the problem.

Let’s just get creative. Let’s get a little wild in how we imagine stretching our comfort zones. They’re obviously getting stretched for us, so why not take back a little of the power and push ourselves a little bit in ways we think we can handle. Take a chance on healing something you never imagined would be possible to heal. These are becoming more and more desperate times, and I think they call for desperate measures…

Just for today, why not take the time to indulge some crazy healing idea you’ve been harboring. Share your ideas with others. There’s so much anger and pain and grief in the world. Surely, you can reach out in some direction to offer solace to someone who might be hurting. All that unchecked pain ends up somewhere, doesn’t it? It’s time for all of us to be more proactive and prevent more of this continued violence.

I realize what I’m saying may sound about as naive and simplistic as it gets. But seriously, people. Do you have any better suggestions?

Leaning In With Sheryl Sandberg

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Dear Self,

Please forgive me.

I have not accomplished even half of what I set out to do this past week and a half. I am forced to admit that I do not have the fortitude to be a participatory mom during Spring break AND a prolific writer AND a domestic goddess and a savvy businesswoman, all at the same time, at maximum level of awesomeness.

In short. You suck for ever thinking that was possible. But I still love you. Even though you are dreaming.

Sincerely,

Me

PS – Best spring break ever.

I posted this on Facebook last week. As you can see, I was feeling a little conflicted.

Like many of you, I’m in transition right now. Just launched my own company, selling my house… it feels like everything is up for grabs. It’s one of those times requiring a terrific amount of self-motivation. Having a ten-year-old boy home from school for a week and a half was not the magic bullet for productivity, I’ll tell you…

I believe this personal transition of mine is emblematic of the larger one that is happening all around us. The world is changing, faster than you can spit. Bees are dying, economies are crumbling, the ice is melting, and hearts are opening. In some quarters, boundaries between religions and political parties show signs of softening… I feel like everything is shifting and old categories are beginning to lose their meaning. I do believe we are entering a new age.

However, many issues persist, and the one most pertinent to me right now is how the hell I’m going to balance all these responsibilities in my lap! As a woman and a single parent, I think my life is fairly defined in terms of what is expected of me at any given moment. The stakes seem higher to me right now than ever before, so I am as open as I can be to inspiration.

Rather than thinking of “having it all” as rooted in some business model, I like to imagine it as living life by my own rules, and working to develop the structures I need to help support the kind of existence I desire. Having it all, to me, means creating the freedom to step between the raindrops and identify myself anyway I choose, to engage in whatever odd combinations of activities make me excited to be alive, and to feel the excitement of connecting with people, places and ideas regardless of whatever boundaries have separated us in the past. I say WHY NOT??

Enter Sheryl Sandberg. About a week ago on April 3rd, I was invited to hear her speak at an event produced by Levo League as part of their Office Hours platform about her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of writing about the League’s co-founder Caroline Ghosn as part of the young entrepreneur interview series I author at under30ceo.com. Levo League was formed to help young women develop their careers by offering access to jobs, skills and community. Sandberg has been one of Levo League’s key investors and continues to work closely with the group.

Sheryl Sandberg photo courtesy of the Levo League

Sheryl Sandberg photo courtesy of Billy Farrell Agency

When the COO of Facebook, who happens to be a woman, writes a book, it’s worth checking out what she has to say. I can’t say I was disappointed. Inspired by her own experience in the corporate world, she shares her take on how to address the continuing disparity of women’s position relative to men’s, in that world. Exploring topics such as fear of our own ambition, success & likeability, the importance of mentorship and finding supportive life partners, she tracks a path to progress that many of us can embrace and make our own.

This particular audience was skewed towards Levo League’s key demographic, professional women in their 20’s and early 30’s. Sandberg seemed especially inspired to address this group who represent, in so many ways, the future of women in business and society at large. It was hard not to be taken up by her passion, as she shared personal stories and anecdotes related to her own life as a high powered businesswoman.

As someone in the midst of my own unconventional journey towards professional fulfillment, I resonated to many of the things Sheryl said during her presentation:

Men still run the world, and I’m not sure that’s going so well.  I think this one is self-explanatory.

Pretend to have self-confidence you don’t yet feel. I often use the “act as if” method to get through times of low confidence… a.k.a. tricking myself out by telling myself somet hing so often that eventually I believe it’s true.

One day the sexiest thing in the world is going to be a man doing laundry. There is data behind this…  This one got lots of chuckles…

Answer email quickly- Two sentences now is better than three paragraphs in three weeks.   I don’t know about you, but I have put this one into action right away.

I think we’re better when we share our real selves.  I couldn’t agree more. Nothing makes me dissociate faster than having to pretend to be something I’m not. Worst. Feeling. Ever.

Here’s the thing. I realize that with every expansion into the unknown, there’s going to be some discomfort, some floundering around in the darkness, some moments of wondering if I’m actually going to drown. I expect it. It’s not to say I like it. Moreover, it does help to know that on some level, what I’m experiencing as a middle-aged single mom rewriting her career path is similar to what a recent college grad is experiencing as she finds her way into the corporate world for the first time.

In some ways, there is not much difference between the quest to break through the glass ceiling of the corporate world and the urge to create a livelihood out of decades of writing, production, small business and other creative experience. Both involve utilizing a multitude of hard-earned skills and either breaking or rewriting many of the rules that are currently on the books. Undoubtedly, each path also involves continuing acts of courage and fortitude.

As women, it’s good to know that despite the natural diversity found within our gender, there are still many things about which we can still come together and support one another. As each of us, in our own unique way, leans into our lives in order to forge our own distinct path, perhaps we can seek increasingly frequent opportunities to support each other and model behavior for one another. I look forward to that!

To see a videotape of the April 3rd Office Hours with Sheryl Sandberg, click here.

For more information on the Lean In Movement, click here.