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Elizabeth Streb: On Taking Big Risks & The Power of Action

Elizabeth Streb: On Taking Big Risks & The Power of Action
Published September 29, 2011 by Ariston Anderson
Elizabeth Streb is all about action. An extreme choreographer, action specialist, teacher, and player, she has pushed the philosophical and physical boundaries of modern dance for over 35 years. Always skirting the edge of danger, Streb’s “PopAction” choreographic style challenges performers to push themselves to the limit, and then go beyond it. Just a brief tour of past performances sees the dancers dangling off a 21-foot rotating ladder, diving through sheet glass windows, and dodging swinging steel I-beams and cinderblocks.

At her studio SLAM (the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, anyone in the community can watch rehearsals and participate in group classes on PopAction, parkour, acrobatics, and more. It’s an environment of collaboration, growth, and lessons in action that participants carry away to their outside lives.Here, Streb shares her thoughts on why we need to push ourselves daily in our work, why it’s important to start every day off with movement, and how to use limitations to enhance our achievements.

What do you get out of movement -- teaching a dancer or creating a new move, for instance?

It’s magic. It’s pure joy. I want to do something no one’s ever seen or heard of before. I want them to think "What move is that?", so they will fall down when witnessing the move, in complete bafflement, out of utter perplexity. I am also searching for the content of movement. What could it in the best circumstances mean?

How did you begin to incorporate machinery into your performances?

From the very beginning, just the way orchestras do, I’m searching for the amalgam in action to music: sounds, pitch, harmony, and rhythm. Go higher, faster, steeper, harder.

What's the first thing you do when you have a new idea?

Draw. Drawing is believing.

In your work process, is it important to stay organized, or more free-form?

I try to draw only in my drawing books. I am not a very organized artist. However, I remember the image and that I had an idea and I know it’s somewhere and I know what color it is and what shape.

From drawing a sketch to the actual performance, how much stays the same, and how much is transformed throughout the production process?

Very seldom do things stay the same. Physics always get in the way of imagination, and that is good. That is exactly what I love about live time performance: nothing cannot be seen. streb_por_550

Photo: Mary Ellen Mark

Why is risk necessary in art?

When you are attempting to create new languages, the investigations can get stuck in the brain and often find no escape there, especially when the idea is invisible as it is while contending with extreme actions, forces, and time.I have found it to be a fruitful idea to agree to get hurt a bit or more than a bit, in the search for a real move. This “real move” is the holy grail of the act, the heart of the machine, the virus in the Petri dish.  This alone tells the truth of where, when, what, and how. After all, un-habitual places in space confuse us and force us to contend with problems inherent in these zones. As Tim Cahill once said, “The explorer is the person who is lost.”

What's the biggest risk you've taken in your life and career?

Oh, I don’t know. Riding my Honda 350 across the United States in an “Easy Rider” sort of way in 1972, with just a little bit of money with me; burning my father’s barn down; diving through glass; being on fire once when I was giving my parter, Laura Flanders, a fire dance for her 40th birthday; jumping into the abyss when first trying to fly and take impact; letting a ton of dirt fall on my head/body while celebrating the Whitney Museum of American Art’s groundbreaking for the new building… Running very, very fast into walls; moving to NYC with just a little bit of money in 1974. 

You've advised people to peer over the edge and be willing to get hurt. How do you know if you've gone too far?

This would constitute an educated guess (hopefully, you get a feel for it), and even if you realize this time you’ve gone too far, as an action specialist, it’s your job to save yourself. We call these hair trigger responses “time instants.” They are faster than a moment. You just have to make the right decision and do it very, very fast… Sometimes much faster than a tenth of a second. After all, they say humans don’t even notice what’s going on if something, an event, takes any less than a tenth of a second, one two thousandth of a second is an explosion. Responding very quickly is necessary.

How do you choose a place for a performance?

I usually don’t choose anymore. We get invited to perform. Most often we perform in theaters. Sometimes I am asked to do something in quotidian places, such as the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, or at the Metrodome in Minneapolis just before the Yankees and the Twins played a game.

What's your dream performance location?

I actually don’t have a dream location for a performance. A place is built when action envelopes it, not the other way around. streb1_550

Photo: Tom Caravaglia

You're based in New York, a city known for its lack of open space. Has this affected any of your performances, and how do you maneuver around this?

For me, limitations are the holy elixir for performance. The human body is very, very, very small. It is exceedingly difficult for an entity that small to have any affect whatsoever on space in any situation. Right now I am considering jumping off the tower bridge in London, or having 14 people do it -- 145 feet down to the River Thames. The humans there would be the size of a cricket, if we’re lucky, depending on where we are being viewed from. The scale idea here is you cannot see us, but you know we are there.

Why is it important to involve the community at STREB?

I don’t see it that way. Those who walk through the door of SLAM are involving us with their capacity to dream and to fly. We all believe in action dreams. We are all together trying to work it out. It’s a panacea, action is, away from sadness to a place of glee. No matter what mood you’re in early in the morning, do some popaction and abracadabra, and glee sets in.

What advice do you have for young artists?

Gee, I don’t feel qualified to give advice. Young artists know more.

More about Ariston Anderson

For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.

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