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In Conversation: Elizabeth Streb with Paula Gifford

Paula Gifford danced with STREB from 1986 – 1994. She spoke to Elizabeth Streb in early June, toward the end of the dance company’s three-week run of Streb Go! Action Heroes at the Joyce.

Paula Gifford (Rail): You call your work “pop action” rather than dance, and your dancers “movement specialists.” Why?

“Squirm” from Streb Go! Action Heroes. Photo: Sandra DeSandro.

Elizabeth Streb: I think that’s more accurate. A system of movement has to do with what is the first impulse to move. Like how do you create that first second of instability that demands that you move to the next second of instability. We do it by kind of hopping our muscles that then drag our skeletons along, rather than the system of weight change from one foot to the next and always being right side up on the bottoms of our feet, never changing the base of our support, and always being oriented in the exact same space. I think that prevalent in dance is a lack of ability to notice that you’re in the same space all the time. Space is such a major component of movement … I mean this is not a very good analogy but if you have all these different kinds of reasoning and philosophy like inductive and deductive—that you’d only have one way about making a determination about assessing whether something’s true or not. You know you have one order of events that you go through, you don’t go at a math problem backwards. And if you can’t get to it in that direction, you don’t solve it. And so it limits your amount of information. I think that the dancers are not noticing that they haven’t made a choice. They’re also making assumptions about how to present movement. Pop action isn’t just about their asking, “Is it dance, is it circus, is it gymnastics?” It’s how do you move the body through space, what are the elements that govern that ability and that set of choices, how complicated is the set of choices, and then how do you time it? What’s the timing issue for movement? I think the jury’s out on that. I say it’s emergent, other people might say no, it’s predetermined. Even more complicated is how do you present action? I think it’s episodic and it’s not duration. It happens and then it’s over. It doesn’t happen over a 10-minute piece, one 40-minute piece, one 30-minute piece. So those are the main distinctions I see between pop action and dance and that makes me suspect that maybe we’re not dance. Another example is the choice of dance to camouflage gravity. That’s a very big thing that we choose not to do. Therefore people think that we’re anti-dance—that was even mentioned in the Voice. I’m not interested enough in dance to reject its principle. I’m making new decisions like having gravity show—how can you not have gravity show? Which means you have to be able to take a hit and all that. There are many more little things that we do that develop our form slightly in an altered state that separates it from dance.

Rail: An altered state?

Streb: Yes. That separates us from dance. Dance believes that you can express emotion with movement, that you can demonstrate relationships as an idea with movement, and that you make dances to music. None of these three things, in fact, do I think movement does very well.

Rail: You have said that music is the enemy of dance. Yet this show has music and narrative also.

Streb: Yes. I still say music is the true enemy of dance. I have no idea why they stick movement to music. Also the idea of changing the base of the support into pressure points, like if you always leave from the floor and return to the floor, and always on the bottom of your feet. From your feet to your feet. All of those things are shedding the differences in enormous human physicality. I think that what we try to do by not camouflaging gravity, by harnessing the invisible forces of movement by changing our basis of support, by not calibrating temporality to sound, is a different rule base than movement, ad infinitum, presenting episodic action en masse. It sometimes lasts one second, sometimes a minute. These are the main distinctions I see between pop action and dance that make me suspect that maybe we’re not dance.

Rail: There are no gender roles in Action Heroes. The women do such tough stuff and carry the men. Is this another choice—a statement?

Streb: Well I think that everything makes a statement. I’m more aware that the older you get and the more you work, you’re less able to relinquish responsibility for choices. Even though they’re not intentional all the time. I think the way I see the world is pretty gender-blind. I never felt stopped because I was a female. So therefore I know that I’m making these choices, but they’re not central issues. They’re just sort of shaded a little, and gender, I think for me, is one of them. It’s more personal, kind of extending from how I see the world, which is, you know, if you can do it, then do it. I don’t really stop to think. Only grammatically sometimes—when there’s some really big tough thing to do. Like I probably wouldn’t put Eli McAfee on Lisa Dalton’s shoulders. Just because in the end—I mean it would be great on one hand—the heaviest and the lightest. But I’m a little more pragmatic these days in that it would take longer, and that’s money, and there might be injuries. And both of those things, unless it’s a purely essential artistic issue, I won’t go there. But beyond that, I ignore gender. People come in there with an appetite and I actually try and soothe their appetite. Like Brian Brooks has claustrophobia, so I wasn’t going to put him in Squirm, but then I wanted someone to squirm through—so those are things that go along with gender a little bit.

Rail: The Company now has 6 women, including you, and 3 men. And before there were always more men.

Streb: Usually more men than women, yes. The ideal would be half and half. But it’s interesting that this is the easiest company to get along with. There are no outrageous personalities, and I don’t think it’s separate from the fact that there are more women than men. Because remember when there were more men than women, testosterone ran rampant. We were going, Oh my God, lighten up! You know. It’s imbalance. I guess that’s why the world has two genders. I mean actually, it probably has 5 genders, but two big ones. But every so often we have a policy of having 2 apprentices that we pay $100 each a week, and we train them, and it worked out that, when we lost a guy, Weena Pauly and this guy Nixon, were the apprentices. I would have chosen a guy to replace a guy, but Weena was just so unbelievably right-suited for the work. That’s why that happened. And we just put her in, she’d already been trained, it was the easiest.

Rail: You present pop action within a box truss structure. Can you tell us about that?

Streb: The box truss was going to be our ability to set up on Coney Island, the Winter Garden, Grand Central Terminal, and any outdoor festival (like the French festivals are outdoor festivals) and still be able to maintain the integrity of the kind of strip or rugged hardware, funky look. The idea of the box truss is that you go into—you know the whole idea at the Joyce, where the show is now, is a “tights and lights” theater. It’s got hard borders, it’s this formal thing.

Rail: Tights and lights?

Streb: I call dance theaters “tights and lights” because all they bring in there is a cassette tape, just slop it in the machine so they have their music, and they have tights and they turn on the lights. And there’s the show! My show has nothing to do with tights and lights. You know it’s really about the hardware and my ability to hook in to different places. Like with the plexiglass wall piece, if I wasn’t able to lock in to the front of my deck, we couldn’t do that piece. I’d lock into the front of my deck, and then I’d seal it from the pipes right into the foot of my truss. So it allows us to have our own in-points and our consistent attachment idea. For all the hardware that we use for these sets for the equipment, and also to have a look that tried to defy this formal and extremely polite theater idea. But they still make all these rules. They take out the front row seats. Even talking to the audience at the end of the show, which is something I’m very, very attached to because that’s where you get a feel for the audience, who they are, they get a chance to rush up to you and say whatever they say, that they wouldn’t do in the green room. People can always come to the green room. Anyway, so the box truss is a sort of flavor that goes from all of those different aspects of presenting work, to actually making people feel a little bit like it’s a carnival or a circus. They have more access.

Rail: When you have your Williamsburg space (STREB Action Invention Lab at 51 North 1st Street in Williamsburg), will you use the box truss or will you build something in the space that doesn’t travel like that?

Streb: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. This particular space is laced with these humongous eye beams, both on the ceiling and on the walls. Huge, beautiful U-shaped eye-beams. Hunks of steel. Just steel everywhere. But we probably will set up a box truss in there because what we do in our rehearsal studios is make a show to replicate the show we put on on the stage. So we probably won’t do something totally different in there.

Rail: Your show is expensive because it’s technically so complex. Dance spaces aren’t used to Streb.

Streb: No! They’re not. They’re pretty shocked. And the truth is we go into Broadway houses now. That’s what’s interesting. Like I look at the programs of the place we travel to and it’s not—almost across the board—there’s not one other dance company. It’s Les Mis, Phantom, Stomp sometimes. It’s kind of great. You know, Jessie Norman—it’s a complete potpourri of shows and Streb is the art thing they want to bring in. We still have the same problems with the economy. They don’t plan to sell us out, sometimes they really do. They don’t plan to, so we’re the art thing they bring in, but we’re still coupled with all these other things, which I like a lot. We have solved a lot of the technical problems. You know for someone who doesn’t know Streb or all of the different nips and tucks we’ve taken, they maybe don’t know this. How hard it is to do a physical events show so smoothly. Because those things over the last 10 years we’ve been like—how are we ever going to solve that problem?—and then figured it out.

Rail: Can you talk more about that experience?

Streb: Oh, God! You know the thing about the garage and going in Grand Central and the whole, that is the whole model of public access. The garage—Streb Action Lab (in Brooklyn—of all the garages we’ve had, this is just one I’m taking on. I’m taking responsibility for it over a long period. But the Grand Central and the Winter Garden and Coney Island during the months in each setting, this box truss structure in the Streb Activity rehearsal performances is in a completely public space. And part of what I learned from that is how—I feel like I’ve gotten in trouble for this a little bit and I still believe it though—I think that the arts have not figured out how to commonalize their invitation system. How to make it pervasively available and clear to people. We don’t understand what codes we send out. Part of why I added the D.J. ( I mean we never really got into the music) is as a code breaker. You know, because you hear this electronic stuff, it’s very arty. You just want to code break it. I don’t have any idea what he’s playing and I go up to him every day and say—do this, do this, do this. I have no idea what I’m telling him. He just does what he wants and I think that if you add those things in, we end up taking more responsibility for code breaking what we’re doing to a larger audience. I don’t believe a larger audience is ever going to go into the theaters. They can educate the man and they can outreach a man. I don’t think they want to come in. It’s not fun in there. But my goal towards complete freedom will be met as far as I can without self-destructing. But to be there, where literally 500,000 people a day walk through, is very exhausting.

Rail: You were at Grand Central for 4 weeks, with 2 performances at the end. Your space was completely open. As people were walking through they saw you rehearsing and setting up and working things out.

Streb: I created a show there—Action Heroes got created there. And we had 50 chairs there. And businessmen would come and not pay any attention. They said, oh, a chair. That’s what I mean. You don’t have to pay attention to us. My job is to get your attention. That’s my job. What an a absurd thing! You have a theater and you’re forced—who’s going to come in there in this day and age? I probably don’t want to say anything detrimental. Theaters are great. I’m not trying to replace theaters. I’m just saying you can only do one thing in that seat, and that’s to watch what’s on the stage. As if you ever have anyone’s undivided attention. You don’t. No matter what you do. So those business guys who come in and make all their cellphone calls look up every so often. That’s all I ask for. Or maybe not look up at all. Just use the chair, man. They needed a chair. That was like at the end of the show, the last performance, who’s in the audience—Eartha Kitt, on her way somewhere on a train. “How long does this last?” I said I have no idea, you can leave when you want. “Well, I can stay for a while, my train’s not till 10 o’clock.” And we all went up and paid homage. Peter Norton, the computer guy, was there. It was like UNBELIEVABLE, and it’s more my style. You know, when you do the Joyce, people get upset that certain people didn’t get invited to the opening. Then there’s my audience base—did I collect names and numbers at Grand Central or the Winter Garden? No! You know what I mean. Attraction, not promotion. I think if there was some way you could sit yourself down like that, major things could happen in the culture. And it really is art that’s happening. It’s not entertainment really. There’s still a lot of art in Streb, even though it might be entertaining. Not art.

Rail: At the Joyce you said to the audience: Feel free to make as much noise as we do. You don’t ask us and our kids to be totally quiet and still.

Streb: I don’t. I want kids to make noise. It’s okay. I’m sorry if they cry and it’s not good crying, but it’s okay to have a life while you’re sitting in those seats, to continue with your life, not to stop it. That’s what drives me nuts about it. It’s an ungenerous place and I think any theater that you go into—they become bound by other group regs that I don’t think they’re even aware of them. Of not having food in there because then you’d have to clean it up. I mean, I wanted to drop feathers over the whole audience, not just my one feather [in Cannonball Drop]. Well then who’s going to clean them up? We’d have to hire another maintenance person. Oh, we said—I’ll go up there, drop the feathers, and I’ll clean them up. Well you have to have another crew person because you can’t climb the ladder. I go “I can climb a ladder.” And also it’s these things. It’s not even a union house. But it’s not different from any theater across the country. I want something else. I think that there should be another model and I want to create it. I want to create this other model and I’m not as obsessed with this idea civically and my responsibility as an artist. In the civic manner as I am with my next dance, whatever that might be. It isn’t in a world that I can’t find a more down-home place in the world for what I do. It’s not going to make me happy if all I’ve achieved is what I’ve achieved right now. If I can’t find a place where the little girl I was up in Rochester—you know, like somehow do a full circle thing.

Rail: What inspired that girl to become an artist? Did you ever go to see dance or any performances at all?

Streb: The circus, but never a show. The first show I saw was Alvin Nikolai at SUNY-Brockport. And I was so blown away. When the lights went out, I was like, is this a fun house or something? I had no idea what was going on. And then there was Alvin Nikolai—that totally changed my life. The general public—why aren’t they comfortable in theaters? Or they’ll say, “How do you get a ticket?” You just buy one. “Ya, but where do you go to get one?”

Rail: You have performed in venues that are not dance venues.

Streb: Last year we did the Seattle Sonics. That’s cool. It’s always somebody talking somebody into something, you know what I mean, who’s got position and power. Nevertheless, we did Bounce at the Metrodome for the Yankees and the Twins, right before the national anthem. The arts have a glass ceiling. And, you can either say I’ve achieved all my goals, my dreams, I couldn’t be happier. I’m established in the dance world. Who would have ever guessed that little old me could, you know. It’s not the end game for me. I don’t really care about my reputation or what I’ve done at all. I have no sentiment to that. I have a disappointment in the fact of the limited outreach for dance. I think there is a certain amount of unexamined elitism that goes into the presentation of dance and the existence of dance. It makes assumptions about a small audience, not that many people would be interested in it. I mean there are many people, like Elliot Feld who has taught thousands and thousands of kids, Jacque D’Ambois and the National Dance Institute just taught in the schools thousands and thousands of kids. Those are amazing programs. But I think that I have an image of another model. It’s both economic and social—and artistic. You know it’s really talking about a high level of art. It’s just talking about placing it in a different spot. So rather than the pleasure of entertainment, which is like Hollywood and Broadway, this is the pleasure of attention, not entertainment. A pleasure of attention that I think could have maybe not quite as pervasive an audience as the pleasure of entertainment, but a very, very large audience. And one that’s untapped. One that we haven’t marketed to yet.

Rail: You were recognized in 1997 with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award. What did it mean to you?

Streb: Well, I had listened to my telephone messages at 1 in the morning. I got home and listened to this thing from—“Hello, this is Catherine Stimpson from the MacArthur Foundation. The Board has just met out in Seattle and we’d like you to… .” I just lay down on the floor in a giant X. Facedown. You could feel such a major, major stamp of approval.

Rail: Sandra Fraleigh is writing a book exploring your work.

Streb: Yes. The Anthropology of the Stunt. She is really interesting. Because she’s sort of an unassuming person, you’ll think you’ll know what she’s going to say. And then you’ll be really shocked and surprised and refreshed by what she says. It’s very interesting. Because you can’t talk about movement without talking about anthropology. You know, in our society, and what is private and what is public and what is aggressive and retentive. There’s so much to say about movement besides describing it. I’m sort of against description in terms of talking about movement. But I’m not a big dance fan you know. So I’m sort of, whatever they write about me, I get what I deserve. Because I always laugh too much about how I don’t like dance. Like when Jack Anderson wrote that (the review of Streb Go! Action Heroes at the Joyce), I felt a little sorry for myself, but at the same token, I totally deserve it. I get what I dish out, I guess. I keep thinking—I’ll win in the end. What is that expression—knowledge advances funeral by funeral. So I put in there, I read in the beginning of this nanotechnology book, science progresses funeral by funeral. Because one movement never convinces the previous movement that it’s right and wrong. It just dies. And then you get to be right for a moment until you die and the next person tries. Like Copernicus was right—he was dead 50 years before anyone would give his heliocentric universe any credence. How could anyone ever think that the world used to be flat. Of course it’s not. Have you seen his book in Barnes and Noble—A New Kind of Science? Stephan Wolfram is the inventor of Mathematica, the calculating program for computers. He also was a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and I got to know of his work because we were doing our presentations at the same time a few years ago. He’s refuting the relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and superstring theory. I would buy every book that comes out on that level. Because it’s just too great. I mean I don’t know how one would ever read it. It’s literally the new explanation for the order or structure of our world. And he believes everyone’s wrong and he’s right. They’ve all had it wrong all this time. Who knows?


Paula Gifford


The Brooklyn Rail


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