Proposal for an illustrated book about the choreographer Elizabeth Streb

Elizabeth Streb is the most original and important new choreographer of the 1990s. The MacArthur fellowship that she received in 1997 is one sign of this recognition; another is her international touring throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Though she has recently presented her pieces at the Joyce Theater in New York, she has also explored such alternative venues as a platform beside the boardwalk at Coney Island and the beach in Miami.. Choreographing since 1979, she founded in 1985 her company, called simply Streb.. In her current brochures, she prints five epithets that define her art: “Ricochet, Crash, BreakThru, Catapult, Air Hurdle.”

The first radical idea was the use of props not as extensions, as Alwin Nikolais had done, but as resistances. So her dancers crashed into walls and wooden planks and dove fist-firstthrough a pane of glass. More recently acquiring two world-class trampolines, she is exploring possible movements for dancers suspended in mid-air. My sense is that out of post-Merce Cunningham avant-garde dance come two directions--one emphasizing alternative movements within a dance tradition, the other incorporating nondance activities for dancers. If Mark Morris for one represents he former, Streb epitomizes the latter. Early in her career she received from Cunningham’s lifetime collaborator John Cage this mash note: “When I first saw Elizabeth Streb’s wori, I was exhilarated. Her energy, inventiveness, uninterrupted attentionaire are great. Every time I hear that she is dancing, I arrange to see her work.”

What I would like to do is the first book that would tell of her life, his esthetic, and the development of her art, with photographs and other documentation. It can be done to any length and size the publisher thinks appropriate. For a sample may I offer a revision of this appreciative article done for Brooklyn Bridge magazine.

Introduction to ELIZABETH STREB

The floor of the choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s recent rehearsal space resembles a playground with mats on the floor and, above them, a variety of large apparatuses on which to climb and swing. The initial, radical idea of Streb’s dance is the use of props not as extensions of one’s body, as Alwin Nikolais used them, but as resistances. So her dancers collide with walls, fall face down onto mats, perform inside boxes in which they can’t stand up, and resound off trampolines. Streb’s dance is very physical, to be sure, but it’s also inventive and engaging.

Streb herself is a solidly built woman in her mid forties, medium in height, with under-kempt dark red hair. Dressed in black gaucho pants with a black shirt, she looks less like an artist who recently won one of the most coverted MacArthur Fellowships than a gym teacher. Indeed, since her associates are adults, rather than kids, her indoor studio resembles an eccentric “health club” more than a dance studio or a playground. As they performed, she screamed spontaneous instructions from the sidelines, much like a solicitous coach. It is not for nothing that her ensemble is called Ringside.

Born in Rochester, Streb attended local Catholic schools, buying not a car but a motorcycle as soon as she could obtain a driver’s license, and then SUNY-Brockport, where she majored in dance. Coming to New York in the 1970s, she took additional dance lessons and performed in other choreographers’ companies. After some stunning solo performances, she started her Ringside in 1979. A few years later John Cage, never a pushover for enthusiasm, gave her a classic mash note, which read in part: “When I first saw Elizabeth Streb’s work. I was exhilarated. Her energy, inventiveness, uninterrupted attentionaire are great. Every time I hear that she is dancing, I arrange to see her work.” Since then her company has toured the world, performing in such venues as the Coney Island boardwalk and the mall outside the Smithsonian in addition to theaters and museums. They have filled New York’s premiere dance venue, the Joyce, for three-week seasons usually around Christmastime.

The classic Streb piece in my memory is Surface (1993) where two 100-pound, door-sized planks of wood lay on a padded floor. Two dancers raise the planks up to be nearly vertical, so that two other dancers can hurl their bodies at the planks that then fall backwards to be picked up again while the two performers scamper off the mats. The process is repeated with other pairs of dancers. The piece’s accompanying music, the entire background sound, is the amplified noises of performers and boards, Matthew Ostrowski’s sound design, here and elsewhere, enhancing the impression of violence. The piece customarily runs seven minutes. I’ve seen it several times already and would love to see it again.

The great recent work is Punch the Jump (1999) which is performed on two large, world-class trampolines, placed one immediately behind the other, with high ledges on the two short sides. The dancers jump onto the apparatus in various configurations, from various angles, and then leap into the air, sometimes repeatedly, before exiting onto the ledges or front mats. The ways in which they fall onto the trampoline, often in pairs or trios (which is contrary the solo trampoline technique), is continually inventive and kinetically striking. Performing mostly in the dance is an old dream of modern choreography, epitomized by Peter Pan, but Streb realizes it not for a single dancer but a group, with no strings attached, incidentally illustrating her radical contention that “returning to the floor is the biggest obstacle to the advancement of action. I like to break Newton’s laws a lot”

Punch the Jump, even more than Surface, is about trajectories, which has become the ultimate theme of Streb’s dance—not movements, not poses, not couplings, not elegance, not stories, not even steps to accompany pre-existing music. Nearly all the dance (and all the sound) results from executing an aggressive physical task, such as falling, tumbling, or colliding; key terms are velocity and impact. In this emphasis on trajectories, Ringside resembles the circus—not only the three-ring Barnum but the more sophisticated Cirque de Soleil, whose choreographers have reportedly known Streb’s work for years.

Look at the audience at a Streb performance and you see mouths dropped in awe, much as they are at the circus. It looks hazardous, much as the circus looks dangerous; but dancers rarely get hurt. Two differences between the touring circus and Ringside is that Streb’s performances are more austere, especially in costuming, lighting, and sound; they are less dependent upon virtuosity. Streb doesn’t mind revealing that her performers strain and sweat, as indeed they do. Her pieces are more inventive than competitive gymnastics which is typically a limited set of moves performed ad nauseam.

In addition to working with her company, Streb and her associate artistic director Hope Clark have conducted workshops called “Kid Action,” where “children work with a movement which is natural to them and discover a technique which develops out of a need to perform the movement safely, rapidly, slowly, in different sequences and against different surfaces.” Her performances this past summer included a short piece on a single mat by prepubescent kids. A variation of “Kid Action” is “Exchange Events,” especially in touring universities, for adult-sized people.

Other Streb pieces include Flying Machine, in which Hope Clark dons a harness in an upright spinning apparatus that propells her in the air around an axis while several performers do counterpoint movements; and Breakthru, a stunning new conceit in which Clark propells herself through a pane of suspended glass, falling to the floor milliseconds before the shards do. “Don’t blink,” Streb advises. “It happens in a split-second.” This last piece especially must be seen to be believed.

Streb, her companion the writer Laura Flanders, and I once went together to Gleason’s Gym on Brooklyn’s Front Street for an evening’s card of amateur fights. Prior to the official events, we walked among the rinks noticing the wrestlers practicing their pratfalls. (Listen for a single thud, we told each other; if you hear more sounds, someone might have fallen wrong.) During the fights Streb drew in her sketchbooks. One woman boxer was so adept that Streb wished she could be recruited for Ringside. As long as you don’t care who wins, I told her, this resembles your dance in that people perform against resistances, not only of each other but the ropes and the floor.

As we left Gleason’s, we noticed it was around the corner from the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, where Ringside had been the sole artist-in-residence a few summers ago, where Streb used a space thirty feet high to suspend her dancers in harnesses enabling them to spin in the air as they bounced off a wooden wall from whose top they were suspended. No one working at the Anchorage thought to tell her that literally a short distance away was Brooklyn’s premiere boxing facility, where much of the choreography incidentally resembles her own.