Definitions

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  October 28, 2009

Viktor Plotnikov’s Rhyme was also “modern,” but it retained a classical sense of form and movement and didn’t require any histrionics. Heather Waymack and Altan Dugaraa first emerged in a series of blackout images, previews in slow motion of the scene that followed. Intimate companions, they crossed the space together, stopping, embracing, lofting. He was carrying her and they were slowly stepping backward as the last light faded. The audience went, “Ahhhhh,” but it didn’t scream.

I wasn’t able to stay for Jorma Elo’s Carmen/Illusions, but up to that point the stage lighting had been kept at low wattage, as if designer John Cuff hadn’t yet figured out how to maximize the resources of the Opera House. And perhaps the orange cyclorama that loomed behind Paquita’s pristine virtuosics referred to the extinct plot about Spaniards and Gypsies, but there had to be a better way to display these impeccable dances.

Ballet isn’t reality TV. Circus acrobats are stronger, marathoners have greater endurance, actors can tell a story more convincingly. Theatrical dancing may cultivate sexiness and athleticism, but ballet-trained dancers have spent their lives learning to look and behave differently from other human beings. That’s their greatest distinction. Elizabeth Streb’s company was warming up for its performance of Streb: Brave at the ICA with ballet tendus — and sit-ups, spine rolls, and double flips. In the past, Streb has used company names like Ringside, SLAM, Pop Action, and Extreme Action to describe what the members do. Sometimes she calls them dancers.

It’s a stretch to think of what they’re doing as dancing, but there’s some relationship between Streb’s action and classical ballet. Both allow us to experience vicariously what we normally can only do in our dreams. Streb’s dancers can stretch like giants and shrink wafer-thin, outrun a speeding bullet, fall without a parachute and live to fly again.

Her newest innovation since her visit here in 2007 is a thing called a Whizzing Gizmo designed by Noe and Ivan España. The floor is a circle within a circle — both of which can revolve independently. The dancers begin a series of walking patterns that would be a cinch on dry land, but once the turntables get going, they have to adjust their balance with every step as the surface underfoot is sliding away. Eventually they’re not just walking but doing headstands and throwing themselves down and rolling while their comrades jump over them. One misstep and you could get run over.

Some of their numbers aren’t merely risky but lethal. A steel I-bar hangs by a single cable above the stage. The dancers set it whirling. Invisible forces raise or lower it, and the dancers compete with it, to roll or scamper underneath before it knocks them over. In another piece, the dancers pull three concrete blocks on wires out to the sides and let go. The blocks swing like pendulums and the dancers play among them, flirting with concussion.

Some things they seem to do just for the splat of it. They throw themselves full force into what looks like an empty door frame. It contains a pane of clear Plexiglas. They land spreadeagled against it, matching up with a partner on the other side and caroming off. They hang from the top of it four at a time and form a shelf with their legs so that another person can lie across it. They run at it and at the last minute sidle up and spring off into a back flip.

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