THE DANGER IS REAL: Not only their moves but their lives depend on precise coordination and teamwork.
Elizabeth Streb has changed the name of what she does again. The show of “extreme action” at the Institute of Contemporary Art last weekend was called “Streb vs. Gravity.” The ferociously physical choreography seems a little less slam-bam and a little more airborne than it used to, but an hour and a half with Streb still celebrates bodies locked in combat with the laws of the universe. Challenge is what Streb is all about, and having demolished one impossible barrier, she and her seven heroic dancers are ready for the next.
The show Thursday night began in an almost tranquil mood with Orbit, for a man and a woman and a red pole maybe 20 feet high. The dancers revolve around the pole on wires, sometimes soaring flat, sometimes tumbling or curling up in their rotary harnesses. They call out the names of acrobatic maneuvers: “Fly!” “Jump!” “Helicopter!”
When they run out of momentum, they push off from the pole with their feet, and sometimes they just walk up it so they can hang upside down while spinning around it, or criss-cross one another without getting tangled. At the end they’re sailing stretched out and spooned together, as if they were going to sleep.
Over the years Streb has built up a vocabulary of extreme moves and the training techniques to support them: the sheer muscular strength of arms, legs, abs; the agility with ropes, bungee cords, and trapezes; the acrobatic skills and the knack of taking a fall. Humanizing their tremendous physical mastery, the dancers are intensely tuned in to one another’s timing and positioning. Not only their moves but their lives depend on precise coordination and teamwork. Besides all this, they have an ability to create illusion, something Streb has cultivated recently. At times this performance looked as if the magical creations of Alwin Nikolais had evolved by several super-tech generations.
In Moon six dancers scrabbled comically across the floor on their sides. Projected on a screen by an overhead video camera, they seemed to be upright and running. The floor patterns and the screen illusion looked totally different from each other. But eventually fantasy took over, and the dancers’ images were free-floating in space, heads were balancing on hands, pyramids got stacked up on a tilt, bodies were tossed up like confetti.
No one has staged danger as spectacle more dazzlingly than Streb. Gauntlet isn’t subtle. Dancers stand at the edge of the space and set two concrete blocks swinging on long red cables. Then the dancers begin to run. The audience sees what’s coming and goes, “Ohmigod!!” Without flinching, the dancers weave, fall, scramble up, in neat patterns, as the — what? 50-pound? — blocks keep raking across the space.
Props and equipment have gotten more elaborate to facilitate Streb’s defiance of the elements. In Tip, the dancers walk, run, slide, and flip off a walkway spanning half a wheel that’s about 15 feet in diameter and as thick as a door. One woman inside the wheel keeps it rolling until the walkway is tilting almost vertical.