A Poetics of Risk

Ann Darby

Last October, on one of the many unbearably beautiful nights that followed the World Trade Center attack, I made my way through the honeycomb of streets under the Brooklyn Bridge to St. Ann's Warehouse—where the choreographer Elizabeth Streb and her dancers are based until next fall. They were presenting an informal performance, and I wanted to see what Streb was up to. Though I've followed her work for more than twenty years, I hadn't seen it in far too long, not since 1997, when she received a MacArthur "genius grant." And it seemed an especially good time to see her work, after the attack, when matters of survival—the chance we wouldn't, the fact many of us hadn't—were on my mind. It's not that Streb's work is about survival, not on the surface anyway. But it has always been about risk and challenge, and her dancers have always required more guts than the ordinary dancer. They must be fearless, or seem so, and who didn't want to feel fearless last October? Who doesn't want to feel fearless now?

But as you watch Streb's dancers swan dive onto gym mats, run futilely away from the wall they are tethered to, or dance barefoot on the edges (not the planes) of sheets of plywood, you might wonder if her dancers are not fearless but crazy. Crazy! is what you think as you watch Terry Dean Bartlett plunge face first from a rigging twenty feet high, crazy! as you watch the dancers hurl themselves against a Plexiglas wall or dive under swinging sheets of metal you're sure would slice and dice anything in their way. Crazy!

The night I saw them, Streb's dancers wore their choice of red, white, or blue unitards, and I couldn't help but think of them as the Delta Force of the dance world. (They would probably prefer being the Evel Knievels or the Phillipe Petits or any other daredevil who met a challenge simply for the poetry of meeting a challenge.) If Streb and her dancers are crazy, they are crazy the way boxers and bareback riders and animal trainers have always been. Trained to take risks we don't, they stand for us. It's not your head in the mouth of the lion, but you feel the thrill and fear.

The program that night—Streb Down Under—drew from ActionHeroes, arguably her most theatrical work so far. In the past, Streb has eschewed music ("too bossy") and narrative ("If you want to tell a story, write a book"). The only sound accompanying her dancers used to be theirs—the sound of their effort and their impact, usually miked. But that evening, a sometimes jaunty, sometimes evocative sound design by Miles Green served as a sonic backdrop, and the movement events were punctuated by voiceover narrations of Streb's action heroes—people like Annie Edson Taylor, the sixty-something schoolteacher who survived barreling over Niagara Falls, and Larry Walters, who attached weather balloons to a lawn chair and floated out over the Pacific. The sound and the stories took some of the edge off what the dancers were doing, but they also accentuated the wit and, well, splendor of the action.

Streb has come by her showmanship honestly over the years. Yet part of me misses the austerity of the early work. She used to perform in utter, unamplified silence, and there were long, awkward pauses between pieces as the equipment she used was broken down or set up. Streb wanted movement to be purposeful, not expressive, so she pitted her strength and agility against physical constraints—working on steeply raked ramps, for instance. And she wanted her audience to see the movement exactly as it was, without the illusion dance usually depends on—the denial of gravity. (That's the purpose of tutus and pointe shoes and landing softly in pliČ.)

A piece Streb performed from 1978 remains vivid in my memory. Unpredictable and thus mysterious, Streb gives mesmerizing performances, yet for this piece she lay onstage on her back, her head toward the audience, her feet in the air—all but crippling herself as a performer. (How charismatic can two bare feet be?) Across the soles of her feet she lay a Plexiglas pole, and in silence she used her feet to revolve, spin, bounce, and balance this pole. (Yes, that was it.) The piece risked frustrating or boring the audience because it did not, as her pieces usually do, stun you. Yet the task was so difficult, you were oddly moved. When I mentioned this work to Streb last October, she reminded me that there were in fact five Plexiglas poles of different sizes and that she spent five minutes with each pole. She laughed (recalling the folly of youth?) and said, "The poor audience!"

Streb still pushes the limits, and she still wants to show you movement exactly as it is. That's what's so satisfying: twenty years ago, she set out to do this difficult choreography that few knew how to watch; and she's still doing that work. Yes, she's listened to her audiences and no longer taxes their patience. If anything, the pieces have gotten shorter and shorter. (She won't waste your attention.) She's learned, she said, that action is sudden: "I feel I'm cheating when I make a five-minute piece."

You may have heard about one of her recent works. It's called "Break Thru," and it's simple to describe though difficult to perform: a dancer catapults fists-first through a pane of glass. (Yes, that's it.) Through a pane of glass, real glass.

Streb told me she's thinking about fire these days. Can you imagine?

Streb can be seen May 29th through June 16th at The Joyce Theater in New York City.