STREB Takes Flight
Tere O’Connor has longed worked in the realm of dance and text, exploring ways that movement and words might form a symbiotic relationship and thus a coherent unified work of art or dance play as he defines it. But in more recent works, the choreographer has chosen to move away from the text-based and toward pure dance. Last year’s premiere of Winter Belly and Choke at Danspace Project, for instance, marked O’Connor’s change in direction. While Winter Belly was a disturbingly beautiful work, filled with animalistic movement amid a feigned and eerie winter landscape, Choke was a more ironic and witty take on sidewalk gesticulations. Embarking on a new path, the choreographer’s first evening-length work, Lawn, which had its premiere at Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) in October, is multidisciplinary in its use of dance and film and explores and comments upon environmental issues. Even more, Lawn is a kind of cautionary tale told through the two mediums.
A grass-fringed screen looms over the stage as the dancers perform O’Connor’s characteristic hand-centered movement. In luxurious jewel-toned, two-paneled robes, the dancers begin a gentle, bouncing movement. The steady, up and down lilting elicits the even-keel feel of a pendulum. Their arms are held out to the side, turned upward as if holding the weight of an imaginary sphere— the polluted world perhaps? This hypnotic movement doesn’t last long. Soon, quick, idiosyncratic hand gestures dominate. Throughout the dancers have a concentrated, cerebral focus and the gestures lead the movement.
Ben Speth’s film serves as a backdrop for O’Connor’s choreography. There are shots of people washing dishes, typing on a laptop, making dinner, and myriad other moments where people are filmed in their individual states of excess and waste. There is even an Adam and Eve dining naked on a plate full of Gristedes plastic bags. Also present, are shots of natural landscapes polluted by a power plant, McMansions, and SUVs. All the while, nature’s beauty peers out at us and over the dance.
As always, O’Connor is able to create a distinct aura to his works. Lawn is contemplative, but this is punctured by the downright goofy as when a mother nature figure is shown frolicking through a forest or when the dancers map out large arching patterns with plastic bags atop their heads. And while O’Connor’s former works are often seamless in the melding of movement and scenery and text, there seemed to be a disconnect between the film and dance here. While film can sometimes help draw out or extend the movement of dance, here it seemed like an afterthought. Better to focus on O’Connor’s main medium— dance— and the messages, often socially conscious, that his choreography conveys.
On any given day, one strolling down North 1st Street in Williamsburg might hear what sounds like a drill sergeant barking orders to boot camp trainees: "Go!" "Right!" "Left!" "Turn!" "End!" If one were to walk into the warehouse from which these shouts emanate, one might be all the more surprised to find dancers. But this is the world of Elizabeth Streb, the "action architect" and choreographer responsible for the extreme dance she defines as "popaction." Over two weekends in October, the STREB company presented in-studio performances and allowed the community to explore, and be introduced to, a smattering of Streb’s works in the company’s relatively new digs— the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics.
Mats, trampolines, scaffolding, bungee cords, and hoops are just a few of the "props" that accompany any STREB performance. Indeed, an audience member might feel as if they had walked onto the set of some adult form of Romper Room. The dancers hurl themselves through space, slam against walls, take flight— nearly— and continually defy gravity and test the limits of their individual physicality so much so that, clad in bright primary-colored red and blue unitards, they seem like action-figures or comic-book heroes and heroines. (Actually, one of Streb’s dance’s is titled "Action Heroes").
A passive viewing experience is impossible when watching a STREB performance. One has an immediate visceral connection to all the action and there is a lot for the mind and body to process. While dancers fly off scaffolding and trampolines, or dangle dangerously from a bungee cord, slow-motion film images of these movements flicker over the scene. Here, the beauty of this otherwise split-second timing movement is distilled. We see, quite literally, velocity, drag force, resistance, and momentum in action.
By far, the most transporting of the evening’s collage of performances was Wild Blue Yonder. Created for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brother’s flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wild Blue Yonder is comprised of a simple, repeated swan dive off the "tramps" (trampolines). The dancers gain momentum and "air" through flipping and bounding off the trampolines, eventually taking a spirited dive into the ether. The continuous repetition, as each dancer veers of the tramps, first to the right then another to the left, illustrates a tenacity. It’s as if, with each repeated try, they will actually achieve flight. But, as much as Streb’s work might be about defying gravity, it’s the very reality of gravity that defines her work. The thuds, slams, and push and pull of resistance are all created by gravity, and this, in the end, is what sustains the movement and adds a bit of poignancy to all the pure fun; we know Streb’s dancers won’t take flight, but they sure as hell try. To take a look at "popaction" in action, STREB offers open rehearsals to the public and "popaction" classes for adults and kids. For more information, visit www.strebusa.org
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.