In "Raw," a slightly stripped-down version of their regular show brought to Merrill by Portland Ovations, STREB performs 10 pieces. Each piece has its own set, a mechanical contraption which either obstructs or enables their movement. In the first, "Wall Run Turn," a transparent, nine-foot-by-six-foot Plexiglas frame stands in the center of an enormous lazy Susan. One of the dancers yells "Go," and the whole platform is set to motion. For three minutes, the eight bodies besiege the wall. Using movements borrowed from ballet, gymnastics, contact improvisation, and modern dance, they ricochet, carom, hang, suspend, repel, squirm, crash, and dangle from both sides. Onto their bellies and backs, they fall dozens of times. Were the dance not meticulously choreographed, it would be impossible to grasp the incredible cooperation at play. As two dancers hang from one side of the wall, another hurls her body horizontally at the backs of their legs as they curl to cradle her. Seconds later, two dancers climb and vault the apparatus — their waists teetering over the top like trapeze artists — and slide headfirst down the other side as the other six compress their bodies against the vertical surface. (Many videos of these performances are on YouTube; I highly recommend you see for yourself.)
Whether it's truly dance or not doesn't matter; it just looks like so much fun. In the process, it's re-imagining (or simply shattering) some pretty time-honored parameters of modern dance. Though there is a degree of emphasis on a "perfect" physical form, the dancers are relentlessly cooperative, often barking encouragement and praise at one another when they pull off difficult moves. The company's enormous custom mechanical contraptions are without precedent in dance (in addition to the Plexiglas wall, they play with hanging cinderblocks, two counter-revolving platforms, and a gigantic half-wheel that acts as a human-powered pendulum, among others). It occurred to me that STREB Extreme Action might be the most rigorous team activity that doesn't involve a whiff of competition. It's too preoccupied with an tireless fascination: what else can the body do?
Going forward, Streb's mission is simple: locate a "real move," a thoroughly original dance concept. In her own words, a real move "is something that you get hurt trying to stop, and something that once you begin it, you can't change your mind. It's got to continue to happen. It's the nature of a real move to not allow any change of heart or mind once the move has begun."
The day before the Merrill performance, I was treated to a instructional masterclass with the STREB team in a studio at Portland Ballet Company. Besides my associate (a friend near my age with a college minor in dance), only one other student in attendance was above voting age — the rest appeared to be Portland Ballet Company students, young girls in tights and leotards. As the STREB team guided us through some core points of motion (see a breakdown of these in the sidebar), they stressed safety and a "personal best" approach, not perfection. Teaching adolescent ballerinas how to fall on their faces is a tough enough job. At a certain point, the fear of accidentally kicking someone in the face led me to bow out and watch as my associate labored on. As Jackie Carlson, a STREB member with a fierce blonde mohawk, demonstrated a series of tumbles and pratfalls for the girls to try, the other members boldly, unironically cheered her on. It was implied that the girls do the same for their friends, that raucous noise and awestruck encouragement were not foreign to this sort of recital. The girls cheered, watching one another perform spectacular physical feats. Flying may elude us yet, but for now, we all fall down.