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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Elizabeth Streb: the INDY interview

Posted by on Thu, Mar 13, 2014 at 10:39 AM

STREB Extreme Action’s company name is truth in advertising: a group of seven superbly-trained athletes who propel themselves into harm’s way, repeatedly—against walls and floors, off of trampolines and multi-story trapeze-like platforms, into and out of close encounters with a spinning industrial I-beam as it careens across stage, and much, much more. In our Feb 17, 2010 story on the CHAT Festival at UNC-Chapel Hill, I described their edge-of-your-seat maneuvers, set to a pulsing techno soundtrack and accompanied by live and digitized video, as “a highly caffeinated remix of death-defying circus acts, gymnastics, motion-picture stunt work and modern dance."

I spoke with choreographer, self-styled action architect—and MacArthur Foundation "Genius grant" award winner—Elizabeth Streb by phone on Feb. 6, 2010, a snowy afternoon in Philadelphia, between the company’s matinee and evening performances at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater.

Carolina Performing Arts presents her company next Tuesday and Wednesday, Mar. 18-19, 2014, in Memorial Hall. Click here for more information and tickets for the show.

Independent: How would you characterize your interest in technology in terms of the work you’re interested in doing on stage? What does technology enable you to do?

Elizabeth Streb: I would say it’s equal: My interest and passion in technology and hardware – mechanical, electronic, hydraulic, what have you – my love for those types for technology is equal to my love of movement.  I see them completely similarly; they’re a congruency to me. For the idea of STREB, I started working with more quotidian objects back in the early 1980s: sticks, wood, hills, ropes and hoops. As I developed, I really started to get more metal and hardware devices involved in what I was doing.

Choreographer, inventor, and action architect Elizabeth Streb
  • Choreographer, inventor, and action architect Elizabeth Streb

It’s like music. As when someone, way back when, decided the human voice alone wasn’t sufficient to express everything the human might express in terms of pitch, key, melody and harmony, I felt that in a Newtonian universe, on the ground, the body’s biomechanical system, which lends itself to motion, was not, in itself, sufficient. Not to express all that can be expressed in terms of physicality.

So we invent hardware, and collaborate with a lot of different technicians, from MIT’s Media Lab and ASU Electronic Arts department to [trapeze artists and engineers] Noe and Ivan Espana, to create pieces of equipment that we can inhabit and develop new physical spatial and temporal vocabularies.

I don’t recall who defined technology as devices that extend the body’s various capacities. It sounds like one of your main interests involves extending the body’s abilities to do a number of things.

It’s sort of a funny thing. I think the initial, more basic question is, "What is the potential content of action?" Not the body doing movement, or machines working the beautiful way they work and function, or the utilitarian aspects of machines and the body, separately and together. But is there a language, exactly, that we can construct with physicality—whether it’s machine-based, electronically-based or physically-based—that will have its own grammar and syntax? That’s my goal.

I’m not just adding equipment and technology because I like it—although I really do. I do it because I think… [pauses] Okay. Let’s take just one aspect of what it means to move and talk about space. If I’m only 5 feet 7 inches tall, and I go into a theater that happens to be 30 or 40 feet tall, then I’m essentially ignoring the major hunk of that space. And for visual and physical reasons, I think that’s a disappointment to the audience and also sort of a tragedy.

When we have a wheel, an injection device, or cables and harnesses, that gets us up into that location. Otherwise, I feel that that location, that empty space, should not exist.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Winter’s Tale at Peace College moves from bleak to pastoral, and in pajamas, too

Posted by on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 2:48 PM


Peace College

Through Feb. 27;

The Winter's Tale is one of William Shakespeare's last and less-performed plays, and it's easy to see why. It's literally half tragedy and half comedy, with a dark, vengeance-filled first opening act that gives way to a second act filled with songs and romantic misunderstandings; the meaning of the title comes courtesy of a charming child who will soon die: "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one/ of sprites and goblins."

The new production of The Winter's Tale at Peace College's Leggett Theatre, co-directed by Kenny Gannon and Flynt Burton, offers  intriguing insights into this relatively obscure work of Shakespeare, although the production's eccentric design choices occasionally obscure the meaning of particular scenes.

This play, which was first performed around 1611, encompasses the classic Shakespearean themes of tragedy, prophecy, mistaken identity, tragic pride, disguises, young lovers, fools, kings and reconciliation. Also, in this play, someone gets eaten by a bear. The story opens in Sicilia, where the king, Leontes (Katja Hill), has developed a paranoid conviction that his wife Hermione (Johanna Coats) has cuckolded him with his friend, the Bohemian king Polixenes (Elisabeth Brewer). This results in Leontes' daughter,  Perdita (Cassidy Jane Hutchison), being exiled at birth, subsequent tragedy befalling the king, and many further travails before old wrongs can be rectified.

The all-female production isn't a problem for the most part, but because all the characters are given gender-neutral blue pajamas, the action becomes difficult to follow in the first act. The use of classical music cues throughout the show also occasionally drags down the action, obscuring the points of some important soliloquies. Things pick up in the second half, though, when the costumes become more specific and the action lightens up (literally and figuratively) as the story moves forward 16 years from a claustrophobic tragedy and we find ourselves in a pastoral romantic comedy in far-off Bohemia.

There are some strong performances throughout this show, which mixes professionals with students: notable among the former are Hill's implosive work as Leontes, Nicole Quenelle as the lady Paulina, and Emilie Stark-Menneg, who in multiple roles shows off a real talent for physical comedy. Among the students, Aneisha Montague and Sidney Edwards make for a compelling comic duo in the second act, respectively playing a shepherd and his son (accurately called "Clown" in the dramatis personae).

While it's one of Shakespeare's odder plays, The Winter's Tale does have a certain magic in its combination of comedy and tragedy; and, unlike the author's darker works, this tale ends on a note of redemption. For Shakespeare fans, it's an opportunity to see one of the Bard's least-produced plays come alive, and see unique local talents on display.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Discussing SPILL with artist Sarah Spencer White

Posted by on Fri, Feb 5, 2010 at 8:41 AM


Installation by Sarah Spencer White

Golden Belt Arts, Building 3, ROOM 100

Through Feb. 14

It took sculptor and ceramics artist Sarah Spencer White 18 months to hand-craft more than 100 individual pieces of earthenware for an exhibit at the Golden Belt gallery in downtown Durham.

White's new installation, SPILL, references past and present handcrafted forms, and explores the shift between industrial and handmade, symbolic of the former Golden Belt's recent past as a functioning factory. SPILL asks us to meditate on what we expect from a vessel. Functionality or dysfunctionality? A sieve or a container? In a Q-and-A with the Indy, White took the time to describe her vision, her discoveries and her inspiration.

Independent Weekly: What brought about this particular ceramics installation, SPILL?

Sarah Spencer White: The work for the SPILL exhibition was conceived and made for this particular space. I wanted to make work that would refer to the industrial production history of Golden Belt and also work well in a gallery that is basked in natural light from the large skylights. These two goals led me to conceive of an exhibition that would be mainly white in color and one that would be a large grouping of pieces. The idea to make pieces that all had a series of holes and perforations grew out of some earlier pieces.

Each vessel has holes that make it useless for the purpose of containing liquids. Why?

I wanted the pieces to reference various vessel and container shapes, but to also have holes that would make these containers unable to contain liquids. I like setting up contradictions. The perforations create a window of sorts into the enclosed space, but they also make it impossible to hold liquid. I think that the function/ dysfunction juxtaposition urges the viewers to ask more questions about the work, to look at it a little bit longer, to engage with it on a deeper level.

I'm curious about the connected network of ceramic pieces.

The table piece is called "Hydropathy." I have used the table to house other collections of work in the past and originally fabricated it because I was frustrated by the pedestals that [another] gallery had to offer while [I was] planning a show. For this piece I wanted to create a system or network of pieces that implied a filtering-down. The holes in the piece at one end are the largest and the holes get smaller and smaller as you proceed down the table. I also wanted to use this piece for the Golden Belt show because it points back to the industrial history of the building.

You mention you were hoping to discover the shifting barriers between industrial and handmade in creating SPILL. Do you feel you made that discovery?

I have been thinking about and working with the shifting barriers between the mechanical/ industrial and the organic/ handmade in my work for a long time. I don't know that I can name specific lessons learned from this body of work. I can say that anytime I complete a large body of work or install a show I am aware of how precarious and changing the human relationship with the industrial is. We live in such an interesting time of science, technology and medical advances. It is also a time where a value of the handmade and natural seems to be increasing in response to these advances.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Celebrating the brief era of headbands, leg warmers, short-shorts and roller disco in Xanadu

Posted by on Mon, Feb 1, 2010 at 4:04 PM



Raleigh Memorial Auditorium

Jan. 28-31

For a film famously reviewed as "Xana-Don't," the ill-fated 1980 Olivia Newton-John/ Gene Kelly musical Xanadu lingers in the mind. True, it helped kill the movie musical, along with the careers of most people involved, but the color, spectacle and sheer wrongness of the whole venture gave it a certain cult appeal. And the Electric Light Orchestra songs weren't bad, either.

As one who has seen multiple big-screen revivals of Xanadu and even butchered the theme song on a few karaoke nights, it's a pleasure to report that the stage musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2007 and played through the snowy weekend in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium, enraptured both those bored silly by the original movie and those who still recall with fondness its laser-riffic effects and nonsensical storyline.

Said storyline involves Sonny (Max Von Essen), a none-too-bright Venice Beach artist with a propensity for headbands and short-shorts, who finds a new inspiration in Kira (Elizabeth Stanley). Kira happens to be an actual muse-disguised as human with roller skates, leg warmers and a horrible Australian accent, and she encourages Sonny to pursue his dream of opening the ultimate center for the arts ... a roller disco. Complications ensue that involve Kira's jealous sisters (Natasha Yvette Williams and Annie Golden) and a wealthy developer (Larry Marshall).

The deliberate goofiness of Douglas Carter Beane's book includes a Greek chorus of muses, a love duet in a rolling phone booth, leg warmers as a plot point, a love song performed on a hovering Pegasus and a plethora of ELO songs, many of which Stanley delivers in an uncanny mimic of Newton-John mannerisms. The production calls attention to its own artificiality, with audience members seated on stage and a major character disappearing from the climax...because, it's pointed out, the actor is already on stage in another role.

More than just a genuinely amusing redo of a flop movie, though, Xanadu is a sly critique on the current state of Broadway musicals that's still accessible to those who've never set foot on the Great White Way. In an age where almost every show is either based on a movie or a collection of repurposed rock oldies, Xanadu uses its muse characters and the movie's infamous history to poke fun at the lack of originality on stage while reminding the audience that this is a stage musical based on a movie that uses old rock tunes for its soundtrack.

Perhaps there's still a dearth of original songs and stories on stage, but Xanadu gets plenty of laughs and energy out of what one character calls "the box known as juke." It's enough to almost make you want to buy some leg warmers at the gift shop afterward (yes, they're on sale). Perhaps I won't be the only one mutilating the theme at the karaoke bar. Xanaduuuu....Xaaaaaaaannnnnadduuuuuuuuuuuu....

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