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.
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.
Universes, the Bronx-based performance troupe that fuses spoken word, song, rhythm and theater, epitomizes the concept of arts-as-multidisciplinary. The performers who comprise Universes—all of whom are persons of color—serve as storytellers and poets and music-makers. They're also social critics who aim to give voice to the silenced. And, for the most part, they succeed in doing so without being too heavy-handed. That’s no easy feat.
Their newest piece, Spring Training, currently has its world premiere at PRC2 in Chapel Hill. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and PlayMakers Repertory Company as part of their Rite of Spring at 100 project, a centennial celebration of Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, the members of Universes were given free rein to adapt The Rite of Spring in any manner they chose. The result is less an adaptation or a recreation of Rite than an entirely new piece incorporating Rite as one thematic ingredient. In culinary terms, Universes uses Stravinsky to season Spring Training, but doesn't let Stravinsky be the dominant flavor.
That’s not to say you can't taste Rite in the work, which features Universes’ company members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja” Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Chasten under direction by Chay Yew. The opening and closing song of Spring Training, a soulful evocation of the struggles of everyday life, melodically mirrors the familiar, haunting bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky’s composition. But here, the music gives way to Bobby McFerrin-esque rhythmic beatboxing and shadows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Then begin the stories: poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes funny tales of suffering and, yes, the rites of passage young people must go through—the spring training of our lives we endure before confronting the even greater challenges of adulthood.
Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Nederlands Dans Theater
Through March 30
You can tell Memorial Hall Box Office tries to be forthright about the merchandise it sells.
Across the face of my front row balcony ticket for the performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater, a big black box is printed. In it, the words “Possible Partial View” appear, in white.
But since no similar warnings were printed on what were my original tickets for the show — fifth row from the front of the orchestra — this review necessarily begins with something of a consumer advisory.
If your tickets for tonight’s performance are in the center bank toward the front of Memorial Hall — in rows E or F, say, between seats 21 and 35 — you may very well want to exchange them. If you don’t, you might experience what I did last night, and subsequently have to enact some choreography of your own in the audience during the performance: an impromptu seated version of what I've wound up calling “The Dance of the Broken Windshield Wiper.”
A significant portion of Crystal Pite’s choreography in The Second Person, which opens the program, takes place on or adjacent to the floor of the Memorial Hall stage, as dancers crouching, seated or positioned on their sides or backs explore and excavate the area closest to the ground. In addition, most of Willeke Smit’s eerie puppetry, with figures that might be three feet high, also takes place in that zone.
The problem is this: At least the first six or seven rows in Memorial Hall appear to be unraked — that is, set on a surface with no appreciable incline. As a result, in order to catch a glimpse of anything happening near the stage floor, dance-goers five and six rows back from the stage (in what, no doubt, are usually premium seats) wound up repeatedly craning their necks and upper bodies back and forth, looking for a break among the heads and shoulders of the crowd dead ahead of them.
Voila: The Dance of the Broken Windshield Wiper.
The experience was so frustrating I asked to be reseated during intermission — which the Memorial Hall staff did, to their credit, with professionalism and dispatch. But by then, half of the program was over: a difficulty if one’s job depends on actually seeing a dance work in its entirety—not just the top four feet of it.
My advice: Check your tickets before the performance. Avoid my experience if at all possible.
More on the individual works, after the break.
Never slight a person with a vivid imagination.
Perhaps that’s the largest takeaway from Robert Lepage’s frequently inspired, technically innovative—but still overlong—one-person performance, THE ANDERSEN PROJECT, which closes tonight at UNC Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall.
It’s tempting to call this intermissionless two-hour performance a theatrical roman a clef, except that one of the names apparently hasn’t been changed at all. For on the basis of earlier interviews with the Canadian quintuple threat—stage director, playwright, film director, scenic artist and actor—one gets the definite sense that some experience with the Paris Opera (possibly his 2001 production there of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust?) left an extremely bad taste in his mouth.
Et voila! (as the French themselves might say): this subsequent 2005 work depicts the dilemmas a Canadian librettist encounters upon being manipulated by an unscrupulous artistic director. At the Paris Opera.
During the course of The Andersen Project, the writer twice addresses an audience at the Opera—standing with his back us, but facing a projection of the famous, filigreed three-story house prominently featured in the film version of Amadeus. He is talking with them about a work they’ve been prevented from seeing on this particular evening. Given the visual riches and technical coups this work regularly scores, it doesn’t spoil much here to note that, the second time, the building is going up in flames.
Not that Lepage need worry at this point about burning any bridges behind him. His Canadian Opera production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (also based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen) performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music at the beginning of this month. His work, The Blue Dragon, premiered at London’s Barbican Theater in February. And the Metropolitan Opera will stage his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—featuring 3-D projections on stage—in April 2012, after a production of Siegfried there in October.
Belgian choreographer-performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has one of the most graceful, flexible and articulate bodies on the world stage. His aesthetic—at least as expressed in Sutra, an hourlong entertainment created with the support of British dance presenter Sadler’s Wells—doesn’t bother to temper this facility with subtlety or nuance. “I feel like I just saw a Chinese version of Riverdance,” one theatergoer was overheard to say at Wednesday night's show.
As the performance concluded, the audience rose up for a noisy standing ovation. Popping out of their seats in a single lighting-fast move, all were no doubt inspired by the martial-art pyrotechnics of the Shaolin monks who’d just wowed us with the mind-boggling speed, power and complexity of their movements.
An adorable miniature monk, backflipping boy prodigy brings a third dimension to the alien-Euro-guy vs. sacred-Asian-army duality; squaring out the drama are 16 man-sized rectangular wooden boxes, which are dragged, propped, dropped and stacked to form a dizzying array of landscapes and images during the performance.
The highlights of Sutra come when performers from among the monks are given solo time on the stage. During these moments, the Shaolin tradition blends with choreographic sensibility to communicate astounding elegance, complexity and power with directness and simplicity.
There is one more performance tonight at 7:30. Ticket info is here.