Going To Extremes

With Elizabeth Streb and Terry Dean Bartlett

“I like it because you can get hurt doing it,” says Elizabeth Streb, a remark that nearly makes me drop my pen. She’s talking about the daredevil movement—a willful collision of dance, aerial stunt work, and extreme sports—that she devises for her world-renowned company, STREB Extreme Action. The troupe will make its Lincoln Center Festival debut on July 12 at LaGuardia Drama Theater, presenting “STREB vs. GRAVITY,” a new commission that promises to shake the Upper West Side to its bedrock.

“What I do—what all dancers do—is a legacy of scarification,” Streb explains. “By the end of your life, you’re damaged, scarred up, and that’s true of bakers, bricklayers, anyone who labors for a daily wage. These are the people who understand what we do, because it’s all about survival. After watching me perform my solo, ‘Little Ease,’ a man came up and said, “The last time I saw movement like that, someone had yelled ‘Grenade!’”

Launched in 1979, Streb’s troupe upends comforting notions about what dance is, what it should be about, and how it should look. It even out-rebels the postmodernists by wedding pure movement to breathtaking virtuosity. And STREB makes no attempt to hide the effort. These aren’t weightless sylphs leaping and landing in soundless pliés. Every thud, bang, and crash is audible.

“STREB vs. GRAVITY”—with libretto by progressive radio journalist Laura Flanders, high-tech visuals by Aaron Henderson, and soundscape mixed and engineered by Maxim Safioulline—includes several thrillers. The two performers in “Orbit,” hoisted by a winch, negotiate a pole that serves as a kind of vertical tightrope. In “Gauntlet,” performers continuously dodge one another and the unpredictable swing of seventy-pound cinder blocks. “Revolution” features a swiftly spinning, two-ton, twelve-foot-tall hamster wheel with a ceaseless stream of performers running atop and within it.

Streb has a few choice words for it all. Using Action Contraptions (state-of-the-art equipment engineered by set designer Michael Casselli), she presents Action Events (not dances) with her Action Specialists (not dancers). She is an Action Architect (not a choreographer) and creates POPACTION (not choreography). The company’s studio and school, which occupies a former warehouse in Williamsburg, goes by the sonically apropos acronym S.L.A.M. (STREB LAB FOR ACTION MECHANICS).

These invented labels are fun and disarming but they also make a serious point—by claiming the right to name herself and what she has wrought, Streb invites audiences to experience and assess her work in its immediacy and on its own terms, not according to the conventional aesthetic traditions governing other forms of theatrical movement.

“We want to put movement center stage, make something that’s so clear about itself—like an opera singer hitting high C—that the person in the audience feels it, too,” Streb says.

Whether performing in a theater, on MTV, or at a Twins-Yankees baseball game, Streb’s action heroes put their bodies on the line every time, taking us along for the joy ride. This risky gambit has paid off in numerous honors for Streb—most notably, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, two New York Dance and Performance Awards (Bessies), and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

“STREB vs. GRAVITY” also spotlights Terry Dean Bartlett, now celebrating ten years as an Action Specialist. The charming, outlandishly lithe Bartlett, who comes closest to being STREB’s superstar, has also served as associate artistic director since 2003. He will perform “Spin”—one of his own acrobatic solos—suspended fifteen feet in the air from a baling hook.

In 1996, having earned his BFA in Acting and Dance Performance/Choreography at the University of Montana, Bartlett moved to New York and auditioned for everything in sight, landing work first with choreographer Hilary Easton.

“Then someone said I’d be great for STREB,” he says. “Although it wasn’t the kind of thing I’d done, I auditioned, and it just clicked. I had no qualms.” His trial by fire still lay ahead.

“I was the understudy for someone who had hurt his knee. While learning his role, I got injured just a few days before my first performance, hit by the flying machine. It split my back open. I got pummeled by this contraption going thirty miles-per-hour.”

But Bartlett grew to enjoy the exhilaration of working with those dangerous machines, the tumbling and crashing, the way the work keeps performers on high alert. What’s more, he savored unbeatable rewards like travel to Taiwan, Australia, and Chile, a guest stint on David Letterman’s show, and appearances with Cirque du Soleil.

“People always ask, ‘Does it hurt?’ Yes. Every time. People see it as crazy and violent, but it’s not. Is football considered violent? The agility and strength are what people are watching for.”

Bartlett now loves to dance with danger and understands what drives Streb. “If you’re not taking the risk, you’re wasting your time,” he explains. “It becomes an act rather than legitimate action.”

Streb, reflecting on the roots of her fascination with form and physics, remembers her childhood.

“Movement was the most engaging idea for me—always. Not ballet or sports, but odd things I’d notice around the house, like broken objects and machines. I thought they were beautiful. I’d spend hours playing with them. I still have a passion for it, and it keeps opening more and more mystery. I’m interested in a language that has great potential for transcendence and for affecting hearts as much—or more—than other arts do. I’m compelled to figure out how it can reach more people, not just the people in the ivory tower.”

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