ELIZABETH STREB: An Introduction
STREB: FORCES! THE MOVICAL | NOVEMBER 29 – DECEMBER 23, 2012 | S.L.A.M.
“RHYTHM IS A DOMINANT ISSUE IN THE FUNDAMENTALS OF ACTION.”
Clang! Bound! Rebound! The wall is the floor! Slam! Gravity is negotiable by force! Elizabeth Streb was fierce before it was a fashionable adjective, and she revealed all of the exactions dance art used to strive to conceal (and often still does) before Post-Post-Modernism arrived with its underpants as outerwear. She was efficient, she was direct, and however unadorned, her work was somehow—then and still now, though it was more so with her in it—not inimical to metaphorical implication.
“I COULD SUM UP STREB METHODOLOGY AS INQUIRY INTO THAT WHICH IS UNQUESTIONABLY TRUE...”
I first saw her work after asking Merce Cunningham, “Whose work should I be seeing besides yours?” He replied at once, “John Cage and I are very interested in the work of a young woman named Elizabeth Streb.” (This was some time ago.) So off I went to an all white room downtown, where a lithe woman of my exact age climbed up walls and slammed off metal tables in vivid action that left contrails of concentrated energy—like Merce’s singular phosphorescence combined with some kind of rocket fuel.
Fast forward five or six years, to a panel at the Dance Critics Association Conference. There she was, talking about her work and taking questions. One of the things Streb proposed was an interest in only “real moves.” I raised my hand and asked, “What’s an unreal move?” It was, in effect, a challenge—but it turns out it was to me.
Because, today, I know the answers to that question. (It took me a long time, but I got there.) As I kept watching, she got more populist, with a generous acknowledgement that her early devotees might feel sorrowful as she ramped up the noise, the machinery, the applied narrative. Her enterprise got noisier. Gone were certain aspects of suggestion, and much of Streb’s personal and ineradicable grace. The calibrations were trickier, the projects got larger. Streb became a show called STREB.
“THE CAPACITY FOR CHANGE REQUIRES MOVEMENT.”
All the while, this perception held: to this day her work is seen as sui generis, outside the dance canon. But it is not. Elizabeth Streb’s work is not outside dance history, or the world of dance as we now live in it. She is a part of this tradition. Her philosophy of dance as physics is exactly what Merce Cunningham proposed when he said “Dance is movement through space and time.” This is formalism. Her statement that “You need to eliminate all preparations and all recoveries” describes exactly what George Balanchine did to make ballet modern. No more prepare, pose, pause. This is Modernism.
Although her programs now have themes—more about keeping an audience engaged, I think, than anything intrinsic to her own vectors of investigation—Streb is not about subject matter, or meaning. Streb is about form—the actual content of the choreography in terms of action.
And yet there is something large in the implications of the work—not in terms of imagery, but in terms of us: about possibility, about teamwork, about throwing yourself at invisible barriers. We all learned to stay upright by falling and getting up again. We all go around throwing ourselves at invisible walls—some we know are there, and some we don’t see until we crumple up against them. Or crash right through.
Streb grew up in upstate New York, rescued from an orphanage at the age of two by a loving mother who sent her to a convent school. Nuns were her role models. Think of this not in terms of subjugation within the structure and strictures of the Church, but in terms of self-discipline, devotion, and working with others in an ordered way. And think about the imagery. What interests Streb and always has is the intersection of the horizontal with the vertical, and various feats involving the transcendence of fear and of gravity. (In other words, Stations of the Cross.) In one of her early pieces, she was a one-woman version of El Penitente, throwing herself again and again at an “X” of light on the ground beneath her.
“WE AT STREB ARE NOT PRETENDING…IT IS THE TIMING OF ACTION AND THE METHOD OF EXECUTION THAT HOLDS THE KEY TO REAL MOVMENT…”
Yes, Elizabeth Streb climbs down tall buildings (in calibrated bounds). Maybe what you do the day she does that is manage to get up and go outside and watch her do it. And yet, some day or other, you figure out that that’s a kind of action, that bravery is relative, and that the crazy things Streb proposes and makes happen aren’t alien even to the timid. You contextualize. See Streb’s work, and you realize at some point or other that physic and psychic are almost the same word. The moves are real. And so are the metaphors.
The Streb quotations used are from her book called How To Become An Extreme Action Hero.
NANCY DALVA is the Merce Cunningham® Trust Scholar in Residence. Her website is www.nancydalva.com.