Elizabeth Streb's Extreme Action Heroes take over a cavernous Park Avenue icon
BY BRIAN McCORMICK | New Yorkers may have to wait a little while to see Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action daredevils scale and drop from the Brooklyn Bridge, but in the meantime, the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot, 70-foot-high Wade Thompson Drill Hall will provide ample room for the master’s explorations of gravity, velocity, trajectory, distance, size, connectivity, and impact in a spectacle aptly named “Kiss The Air!”
“My concerns have steered far from dancing for many decades,” Streb confided during a rehearsal. “I’m investigating the content of action, which is not what dance does. Dance puts an emphasis on the body, as opposed to what it does. In my work the performers engage in essential acts –– ‘I will run, balance, climb, walk, fly, fall, stay, spin, crash, drop, stop.’”
Also distinguishing the work from presentational dance is the way in which Streb has developed what she calls “an exploded proscenium.” At the Armory, audiences will be treated to stadium seating, surrounding screens, a swimming pool, and, of course, large architectural gadgets and platforms for exploring the intersections of flesh and physics.
“Ascension” occupied Gansevoort Plaza in early July, commissioned by the Whitney Museum to inaugurate its new downtown home. “Ascension” uses a gleaming, aluminum, 21-foot turning ladder, inspired by the essential, quotidian fire escape and the myth of Sisyphus. Eight dancers inhabit and negotiate its spinning rungs as gravity propels the rungs ever faster and, in the process, create moments of hard-won, graceful beauty. It might look like a carnival ride, but these people literally are taking hits for you in the process of getting it right.
“Human Fountain” took over the World Financial Center later in July. Inspired by the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, this work takes place on a three-story honeycomb structure, from which 20 dancers leap to create living cascades.
The program will also feature the new works “Falling Sideways,” “Pass,” “100mph,” and “Kiss The Water” –– ergo, the swimming pool.
After attending rehearsal for “Ascension” with the company at the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) in Williamsburg, Gay City News had the opportunity to ask a few questions of STREB Extreme Action hero Cassandre Joseph.
BRIAN McCORMICK: When did you first learn about Elizabeth and her company and what were your impressions or responses to her and her work?
CASSANDRE JOSEPH: I first learned about Elizabeth Streb in 2007. I was working for an aerial company and heard about her action lab through the aerialists who rented space from her. I had no context around what I saw when I first walked into SLAM. To be honest, it all seemed pretty strange. It was loud and aggressive and scary. I was coming from a discipline where we weaved through silks hung from a ceiling, we performed to lyrical music, had shiny costumes. It was so different!
BM: Can you talk about what it’s like to be working with someone like Elizabeth, an iconic personality and out superstar? Does it make a difference at all externally, i.e. in the studio? Does it change the way you feel about what you do?
CJ: Working for Elizabeth Streb can be pretty intimidating. Not so much because of her direction but because when you are in the presence of greatness, you want to do better than your best, all the time. I come from a family of medical doctors and have had to fiercely defend my career choice from the beginning, but because of who Elizabeth is, I feel thoroughly reinforced. I never question the validity of what I do. In fact, I feel privileged and honored to be part of her work, and that pushes me constantly to draw the lines of my limits higher and higher. It is the greatest feeling in the world to actually do something your mind tells you is impossible. We do this every day, all the dancers. Our rehearsals are electrifying.
BM: What’s the most exciting thing about working with STREB?
CJ: For me, it is the equipment. It starts out with an idea. Elizabeth will imagine a contraption, draw it, commission its creation, and then put it in front of us and say, ‘Okay, go play!’ There are no manuals to help you figure anything out. No coaches who train you on how it's done. Nothing like that. We become explorers in uncharted territory, defining our own rules and creating our own language. It's so empowering and just plain awesome!
BM: What’s the most terrifying thing about working with STREB?
CJ: The most terrifying thing about working with STREB is the potential for failure. The work pushes every aspect of your physical and mental strength. Can you go higher? Can you go faster? Fly further? Last longer? Take a harder hit?
These are daily questions and when I stand almost 30-feet high, looking over a platform, ready to jump, and my heart is racing like mad. It's not so much because I am so high and that this is crazy and that I might get hurt, but it is the thought that I might not do it at all, that I will chicken out and climb back down the ladder, that I will burn out and not make it past the finish line. That, to me, is the most terrifying thing.
STREB EXTREME ACTION
“Kiss The Air!”
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Ave., btwn. 66th& 67th Sts.
Dec. 14-16, 20 & 22 at 7 p.m.
Dec. 17 & 21 at 2 & 7 p.m.
Dec. 18 at 3 p.m.
$35, $25 for 12 & under
armoryonpark.org or 212-933-5812