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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.

click to enlarge 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.

That sense of exploration raises one topic I’d like to broach with you. One major focus of the CHAT Festival was on gaming in culture. Directors working with engineers, software designers, game designers, artists, playwrights and more, attempting various forms of synthesis. It’s a major notion they’re approaching from a number of different directions.

I mention that in this conversation for one reason. A gamer with a console or a keyboard in his hands playing Halo or Worlds of Warcraft isn’t doing what his avatar is doing in the virtual world. So much of gaming technology has seemed to me to be oriented toward what I’ll call disembodied experience.

I’m wondering how advisable you feel this is as an application of technology. I’m also interested in your view on this since your employment of technology seems so diametrically opposed to it—towards what we might call extremely embodied experiences.

That’s a fascinating juxtaposition. The simplest way to answer that question is that we are about live-time. Our magic exists in trying to make something physical happen in a live-time setting, in front of people’s eyes, with action.

I think that a lot of the gaming industry, the notion of the Game Boy, and all of that beautiful, complex almost ideology with using and harnessing the notion of avatars, is sort of like a second life. You’re really using your imagination, kind of dreaming that all of this is real though in fact it is not. And you’re participating.

We’re on stage, doing all these wild movements, and my goal, my joy is to figure out how to get the audience to actually feel that they have done at least some of those moves—to have them clench their muscles and have the real experience.

So, on some level, I have to concede that it’s not that different, you know? Except I’m controlling the game they’re watching.

I’ve seen your performances before. As a rule, the audience gets very involved; people are on the edge of their seats, shouting, clapping. They are obviously having a physical experience and it’s a fairly intense one. Now, of course, it’s just a fraction of the experience that your performers are having on stage, but I take your point: There is a visceral experience, not just a vicarious one. The adrenaline’s pumping, people are yelling “Look out,” and the like. They’re really investing in the experience.

click to enlarge The Whizzing Gizmo, in STREB's "Brave"
  • The Whizzing Gizmo, in STREB's "Brave"

I wonder how you characterize that response that the audience has when they’re observing your performers.

I think that the audience’s response to us is really empathetic. They’re actually participating in the movement. I think it has a lot to do with the recognizability of action, in almost an anthropological way.

Go on.

I’m kind of a collector of actions in the world. I don’t really prescribe to exhibiting balletic moves or normalized modern dance moves. I wanted to see if I can come up with an archetypal set of juxtapositions of time, space, body and other forces—so that humans, the everyperson could look and say, “I recognize that. It’s not so arcane or esoteric that I don’t know what that is.”

Does it have a name? Well, maybe not, you know, but maybe it’s something more sensual—not sexually sensual, but sense, in that it reminds them of cut grass, say. Do you know how smell operates? Sometimes you smell a smell and it takes you back, hurtles you back into your past. That’s what I’m going for.

A sense experience that evokes a certain sort of time travel, almost—an overwhelming memory feedback that comes into play.

Ideally. If I could say a couple of other things about that, because it’s such a fertile subject. I think that the content in action is enhanced—or maybe even contained—by the rhythm of the movement and its physical rhythm, which I don’t think has been named yet.

But there’s also the notion of how do I, the controller, try to imagine how people perceive motion and what are the limitations of that perception?

Because I’m going to posit that most modern dance is received perceptually as a visual and aural experience. That’s number one. One more thing on top of that: I want to create a causality that’s so unpredictable that it would be tantamount to an audience reading a page turner, one you can’t put down.

I want their attention like that. I try and construct my moments so they can’t look away.

I’m very much in sympathy with what I hear you saying. I would strongly agree with you, that much of what we call modern dance, in terms of its relationship with audience, seems to be oriented toward something along the lines of an out-of-body experience; a physically calming, “Isn’t that pretty” sort of effect. I think it’s clear that the rhetoric of the disconnect is involved, at least in terms of the audience’s relationship with their own bodies while the work is happening.

By contrast, I’d say it’s fairly obvious, when you are doing your work, full tilt, on stage, it’s a very embodying experience, not only for the people on stage, but also for the audience. We become hyperaware of our bodies, hyperaware of what our adrenals are doing within our own physical plants.

Absolutely. We just finished our matinee, and sometimes I’ll plant myself in the audience and kind of hide out during the show. This afternoon, there was a guy in the audience, probably in his late 60s, who just started doing 90-degree pops [jumps from a sitting position]. It was beautiful.

I just think there’s something about life-giving through motion. You feel – embodied – like, “I can do things I couldn’t do before.” I guess that would be my ultimate dream.

I want to focus on your collaborations with MIT and ASU; the nature of those collaborations.

With MIT, in this show we have an actual bipedal robot that we developed with the help of Hugh Herr, who runs the Biogenetronics lab at MIT. An engineer named Laura Michaels has helped us program the robot to do some STREB pop-action movement.

We’ve been trying to figure out how to physically enhance our bodies with exoskeletal types of objects. Currently, we’re experimenting with something between a pogo stick and a stilt that we don’t have in this show yet.

click to enlarge Leap of faith: STREB, performing "Brave"
  • Leap of faith: STREB, performing "Brave"

We’ve been working with a man from ASU’s Electronic Arts; his name is Winslow Burlson. One aspect of our collaboration, which I think will continue to billow out, is developing a pendaphonic machine.  We have a piece called “Run Up Walls.” You attach [the machine] to one of the people on the wall in their harness. It’s then connected to a computer, and the computer collects data: How high or low are they on the wall? How far out from the wall are they? How far to the right or the left are they going? The data is then read into a program that contains the topology of the moon. In the end, they are dancing on a moonscape.

We’ve just put in an application for a “Spider-Man suit,” a body-enhancement device, as we spoke of earlier.

A lot of times, our equipment is separate from the body, and once it starts moving, it’s often propelled by the body. We have a turning machine which rotates and turns the floor, and it’s propelled by two separate motors. The dancers enter into this centripetal force vector and deal with the choreography I’ve given them—somehow, some way—which gets messed up because of the turning floor.

—the piece is called “Artificial Gravity”—

Yes. What we’re experimenting with Hugh [Herr] on is wearing the hardware, putting it on our body, and mixing the hardware and the human biomechanical unit at the same time together.

You’re interested in exploring and inventing new movement languages in these intersections between the human and the technical applications you incorporate. What do you anticipate finding and what have you already found out, in these new grammars you are constructing and new movement vocabularies that you’re generating and developing? Can we put it into words? What would the words be?

One of the essential things I have found is that humans can fly. I suspected that 25 years ago, but now I feel it is really true. The type of flight we’re going for is very much what the Wright Brothers were going for: It’s just slightly more sustained flight than had been possible prior to that moment. That’s the dream of all humans – to fly.

We do it in a kind of grubby, grungy way, because we never camouflage gravity; we always hit down. We always see the failure of flight involved in our pursuits, and we accept the failure as part of the nomenclature of the attempt.

The other thing I’ve found—and this is what is so mysterious about this journey—is that if I set up a physical condition well enough, there are things that come out of it that I can’t even predict.

In my heart of hearts, I am an experimenter. I came into the downtown experimental dance world with interests in developing a way of asking questions about motion and hardware, where you ask a question to try to remember to ask a question that seems so unquestionably true that you forget to ask it.

Back to first principles.

First principles, yes. What’s non-trivial about the truth about movement?

My opinion is that movement for movement’s sake is not investigated enough. It’s been so tied down by its attachments to music—this sort of artificial timing system.

I think my thing with technology is really about a whole other art form, ultimately. Probably long after I’m dead, it’ll be “action art” or something like that.

Take the “Whizzing Gizmo” [a multi-story, spinning, semi-circular apparatus, that the company will use in Chapel Hill], invented by Noe and Ivan Espana. I had no idea it could generate the forces and the spatial access that it has generated for us when I first gazed upon it and had my dancers get on it. Things like that.

It’s a discovery. It’s a new land. It’s like going to new lands and not quite understanding how to breathe the air there.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the audience, to orient—or warn—them?

I guess a couple of things. One: We are professionals. Do not try this at home. [Laughs.]

And two:  Anyone who’s ever slipped on a banana peel will understand what we’re doing. There is nothing they need to know before they walk in the room to witness STREB. Nothing but just being a human being in the world.

Fair enough.

Maybe one more thing: They will simply not believe what they’re going to see. They can’t imagine what they’re going to witness in the room.


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Why does extreme choreographer Elizabeth Streb fling dancers from walls and two-story whizzing gizmos? "It’s a discovery... It’s like going to new lands and not quite understanding how to breathe the air there."

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