Dance Review

The Thrill of the Brave: STREB's Extreme Action at UNC

February 19, 2010 - Chapel Hill, NC:

In association with UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Carolina Performing Arts is presenting motion artist Elizabeth Streb’s powerful company for two nights of performance in Memorial Hall. The performances were scheduled to run concurrently with the Institute’s CHAT Festival — Collaborations: Humanities, Arts and Technology. STREB certainly fits into that rubric.

Elizabeth Streb and the STREB team — variously called “action collaborators,” “actioneers,” “action heroes,” and occasionally even “dancers” — engage in motion research, investigating physical principles through the human body, and maximizing the body’s power and prowess in the process. (You might think of aeronautical scientists, designing an ever more perfect and powerful rocket.) The sturdy dancers have more in common visually with circus athletes than with ballet or even modern dancers, and their movement vocabulary includes much from the circus and acrobatic worlds. Physical comedy, wrestling and demolition derby seem to be other inspirational sources. But most importantly, their art is a kind of joyous science. It is daring, it is dangerous — but these are not foolish stunts. The surprising motion sequences are illuminated by a rational faith in the physical truths of the universe.

This just the facts, ma’am approach to dance does not lend itself to storytelling, although a certain amount of story can be extracted from any movement sequence, and it does not tend to make pretty pictures. But there is no shortage of compelling, exciting, even astonishing imagery. Thanks to Streb’s interest in machines and new technologies, and her involvement with MIT’s arts and technology lab, we are able to see her imagery from more than one viewpoint. Streaming video shows us patterns we might not be able to view from our seats. It is kind of like looking into a microscope, seeing structures revealed — but also like peering into a kaleidoscope, and seeing the world as a gorgeous ever-shifting pattern.

It is, however, difficult to take your eyes off the dancers, as they act out the basic truth that “a body in motion tends to remain in motion.” You’d think that slamming into a Plexiglas wall, or onto the (padded) floor might stop a person, but we see the energy return from the hard surface into the dancer’s bodies, propelling them onward. We see what it takes to achieve lift from gravity and become airborne, if only for seconds. We see the forces generated by rotation. We see the interplay of space and time along a parabolic curve of varying energy flow in an amazing dance in which the dancers move around and under a pendulum made from an I-beam. The pendulum swings, of course, but since a dancer “loaded” it with extra energy in the form of twist on its suspending wire, it also changes height. The pace of change alters as the energy of the twist is released, and the dancers must be attuned in time to the steel’s changing position in space. It is thrilling, as are most of the other pieces. And, there is a special appearance by a robot, which mimics the human at diminutive scale.

Streb’s works are brilliant as both art and science. Stories abound of people suddenly getting excited about dance after seeing STREB. But I think that if every middle school student taking earth science saw the company perform there would be a lot more physicists in the making. Whichever side of the art/science spectrum you place yourself on, you’ll find yourself better balanced after watching the balanced extremity of these actioneers.