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.
Since its release in August 2013, it's been selected as one of the best books of the year by the likes of Amazon, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which commissioned Becker to do a special cover for its Book Review, something Becker calls "a highlight" of his experience with the book, along with President Barack Obama buying it on a recent Small Business Sunday shopping trip.
Journey is a departure from Becker's work in film, where he worked doing digital concept design for large-scale motion-capture films, including the widely derided Mars Needs Moms, one of the biggest flops in film history.
"When I went to do the book, I very much purposefully wanted to leave all that behind," says Becker, who cites such classic illustrators as Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak as influences.. "I taught myself watercolor and pen-and-ink just to do the book over the course of the summer—I practiced until I felt I was ready to go.
Though he was doing contract work for such studios as Lucasfilm while working on Journey, the book's success has allowed Becker to dedicate himself to picture books full time, with two sequels to Journey and other projects on the way. "It's like, thank god!" Becker syas with a laugh. This is the best thing ever! I can do this all day!"
Aaron Becker appears at Flyleaf Books for story time at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2 to read from and sign copies of Journey. For more information, visit www.flyleafbooks.com.
But she has a near-anthropological understanding of poultry that she’s brought to her latest book, Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99), a feathery retelling of the classic fairy tale with a Russian setting. She’s currently touring to promote the book, in an enormous tour bus branded with an image of her chicken-princess on the side.
Brett’s encyclopedic knowledge of chickens, gleaned from observing her personal flock of more than 75 birds, inspired the book.
“Both my editor and I breed chickens, and we were talking about how sometimes one little chicken will get a little bit picked on while they’re molting,” Brett says, speaking recently on the phone.
“And then I joked about how when their feathers come in, they look like whole new chickens, and they’re perching like they’re queen of the roost, and my editor and I said, ‘Just like Cinderella!’ at the same time.”
Having already interpreted such classic tales as Beauty and the Beast and Goldilocks and the Three Bears in her past books, Brett was initially reluctant to go back to the well of classic fairy tales, but found herself thinking about how the chickens’ plumage would be a perfect fit for a Russian setting, and how the hierarchy of chickens—the “pecking order,” so to speak—could serve as a metaphor for human behavior.
“They all assume different personalities,” Brett says. “There’s the young pullets, the females, under a year old, and they’re all running around like, ‘I’m so pretty! I’m so pretty!’ And then they get older and they’re a bit more dignified and starting to lay eggs, and they’re acting like it’s the most important thing to happen in the history of the world.
“And then older hens will get bossy, and order younger chickens around, and young chickens will be fighting with each other, and trying to get noticed. They just really looked like they could take on the roles of a story, or a fairy tale in this case. And it lends itself to the Cinderella story—they’re kind of gangling and scrappy at a certain age, and then all the sudden they’re beautiful.”
She’s loved the birds since childhood: “I had a pet chicken as a little girl, and I trained her to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle” Years later, one of her early ideas for a children’s book led to her getting some feed store chicks for research. That helped inspire her 2002 book Daisy Comes Home, and in turn led to her acquiring what she calls “a huge farm of chickens.”
She sells a few, but keeps most of the others: “They live to a nice old age.”
Brett also thoroughly delved into Russian culture and history to create the world of Cinders: “We did a research trip to St. Petersburg and crammed in as much culture as we could in a short time—we saw the ballet, and a symphony concert, and a folk dance concert, and went on walks in the woods and had a hot steam bath and saw some wonderful restored architecture.
"The highlight was probably going to the Museum of Ethnography, where there were mannequins dressed in what was probably the style of the 1800s—I say ‘probably’ because in some of the more traditional villages, they also dressed in this style.”
She admits to wanting to do a few updates to the Cinderella story for her book ("I just didn't want to make the stepmother wicked"), but otherwise loves using animals to tell old-fashioned stories.
“There’s just something human about telling a story animals that’s kind of un-explainable to me, but makes a certain sense when you think about it,” Brett says.
Jan Brett appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23 (the giant "Cinders" bus out front will be hard to miss). This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.