If you’ve ever fallen out of a tree, you remember the momentary sensation of flying, despite the mini-concussion that followed. Choreographer and MacArthur fellow Elizabeth Streb was seeking that feeling of free-fall when she first started gliding off a 12-foot ladder and smacking down hard . . . onto a mat. She’s pushed her experiments with gravity to an art form with the seven dancers in Streb, her New York-based company, and will bring their show to Providence on Saturday as part of the FirstWorksProv Festival.
FEELING GRAVITY’S: PULL The troupe.
Streb’s current show is a new presentation, though it incorporates elements from 2004’s Wild Blue Yonder. It includes sequences with long poles and well-timed ducking; dancers strapped into belts hanging from bungee cords; cement blocks swinging past the dancers; a truck strap stretched as taut as a tightrope; and a hay hook from which one dancer spins and twists.
The sections of the evening that have brought Streb the most notice are “Ricochet,” in which the dancers throw themselves against a plexiglass wall; “Extreme Gravity,” where the dancers fall from varying heights (up to 30 feet) onto a mat; and “Flying Machine,” in which one dancer is harnessed to a Newtonian lever device to “fly” over the tops of her colleagues.
“I want to provoke wonder on one level, surprise, and maybe even alarm,” Elizabeth Streb noted in a recent phone conversation from her Brooklyn studio. “My work is without a story; I’m not doing narrative. My job is to capture the audience’s attention.” To accomplish that, Streb asks herself several questions: “Can you string a series of actions together that people will think defies reason? Or they would rather not watch you do it? Or they certainly don’t want to do it? What’s a beautiful movement? What’s possible to do on an artificial platform like a stage?”
Taking her cue from things she sees in street life, stunt work, the circus, and superhero films, Streb has looked at “pure movement” as “a movement that you get hurt trying to stop. My goal is to bring extreme action,” she emphasized. “That is, once you let it out of the bottle, it’s a turbulence. It isn’t about ordaining its process. It’s on its own, and your job, as a movement specialist, is to figure out how to survive.
“That’s why a Streb show is an event,” she continued. “It’s something everyone participates in, because you can’t really tell. You can’t be sure what’s really going to happen, even though it’s choreographed. There are lots of accidents.”
That element of danger or violence — it’s especially startling to hear that full-body slam onto the mat — is intrinsic to a Streb performance. But Streb dancers train to accept the impact of hitting the ground or a sheet of plexiglass. When they fall, they keep their bodies in a flat horizontal line, without tipping or arching, so that they land on the full surface of their body.
Even so, the 56-year-old Streb, who stopped performing in ’98, admits: “It’s a high-end physical sensation that only the most esoteric humans would appreciate actually doing — it requires a kind of junkyard dog mentality.”