Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elizabeth Streb and the forces of nature

Elizabeth Streb calls herself an action architect. She designs new ways for the human body to move through space, challenge gravity, push the possibilities of physics. At first glance she may seem like an edgy choreographer or an "extreme action hero," as some have called her. But don't get distracted by spectacle. What's really going on is an exploration of how our bodies can make the most of our existence in our physical world. Just as a meditation master might ask her student to imagine the infinite possibilities of the mind, Streb is asking her dancers—and by extension, us—to question our preconceptions about how we use our bodies. At least, that's my interpretation.

With the cinderblocks swinging and the bodies airborne, it would be a mistake to think this is a reckless act. Rather, it's a carefully constructed and executed communal event. The dancers must trust each other, trust their training, trust their bodies. And they must embrace the physical world, whether harsh or supple.

As you may have gathered, I've got a thing for dance. Ex-girlfriend. For a few years I saw a lot of modern dance in various studios and performance spaces below 14th Street in Manhattan. I know the art as observer—never performer—but not just as audience. I liked watching rehearsals, whenever I could, more than the polished concert. I liked seeing the dancers deal with their injured foot or discuss a particular "phrase" of movement. Streb invites the public to watch rehearsals at her company's space in Brooklyn—reportedly a cavernous facility in Williamsburg. I haven't been there—yet.

Streb is a great-looking butch punk lesbian whose partner is British-born journalist Laura Flanders (who runs GritTv, with which I am entirely unfamiliar.) See the two of them talking about gender and class in dance. Streb won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1997. Scientific American has said: "Streb distinguishes her work from ballet and modern dance, which, she says, seek to camouflage the forces of nature. Those forces are the whole point of her performances."

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