Elizabeth Streb is a major innovator in movement research and performance, in fact she received a MacArthur “Genius grant” in 1997 for her investigative spirit. Trained as a dancer, she shot off on her own course in the late 1970s to question assumptions about what bodies can do—“Can we fly? Can two bodies occupy the same space at the same time?” The Streb Action Intervention Lab (SLAM), her Brooklyn base for rehearsals, public classes and performances, opened in a Williamsburg factory space in 2003. Her performance events include a dancer diving horizontally through a solid glass panel and dancers diving from 30-foot platforms to land flat on their stomachs or backs. She collaborates with engineers to develop amusement park-like machines that further test human movement potential in space, time and against gravity. While she does grapple with intellectual concepts, her work is by no means purely academic—there’s good reason that members of the STREB Extreme Action Company are called Action Heroes.
While the company was polishing off two works that will be shown at the December season at the Park Avenue Armory, NYC ARTS got to speak with Fabio Silva, the company’s the associate artistic director, who has also performed with the company for eight years.
NYC ARTS: You’re the associate artistic director to a MacArthur genius. What is the nature of your collaboration?
FS: Interesting question. We come from such different worlds (laughs) but what I help her with is to get the dancers to understand what she’s asking for. Sometimes I make the translation between what goes on in her mind to their bodies. I see myself as a facilitator. Her mind is so complicated, because she’s a genius.
NYC ARTS: What world do you come from?
FS: I was a gymnast growing up and then I decided I wanted to be an actor when I was 19, and then a post modern dancer when I was 22 so I started studying Klein technique and I’m in school now to become an Alexander technique teacher. I do a deeper, gentler approach internally. Elizabeth had really strict training as a dancer and approached this new type of movement as an animal. She just banged against things. My approach, because I started banging against things as a gymnast, was to start going backwards to look for something gentler. She came from modern dance so was looking for something more aggressive.
NYC ARTS: Ascension, commissioned by the Whitney, involves a rotating ladder that the dancers negotiate. I’m envisioning an action film of an M. C. Escher drawing. What is it like to execute the piece?
FS: It’s fun. We spent the entire last week working on Ascension. Everyone’s hands went out the window. Blisters, calluses—our hands ripped. It’s somewhat of a gentler Streb piece. There isn’t any impact—it’s mostly upper body stuff. The ladder is so unpredictable and has a lot to do with counterweight and timing. It’s very sensitive piece of equipment that’s made of aluminum. You can move it with a finger. Depending on where your weight is it will fall forward or backward. It’s one of my favorite pieces. My friends were terrified when they watched it but agreed it’s perhaps one of Streb’s most beautiful pieces ever….lyricism, bodies dangling in the air and flying. I don’t think Elizabeth knows exactly what this dance is yet. It will be shown in December at the Park Avenue Armory show and it will be different than now. She always says that it takes her about two years to finish a piece.
NYC ARTS: In Human Fountain, a River To River festival commission, performers fall/dive off of platforms of different heights onto mats – the highest platform is 30 feet. At what increment does the body feel a difference in the fall’s impact? Does your technique have to change with each increment?
FS: I tell people, if they can fall from four feet, they can do it from 40. That’s in theory. If they know their bodies well enough from the moment they leave the platform to the moment they land, the technique is the same. When you go higher, it will take longer to land. The impact will be a bit bigger. Emotion and psychology have a lot to do with it. But we’re landing on 16 or 20 inches of mat. Falling and flying technique is different. Fourteen dancers will perform this at River To River.
NYC ARTS: The dives sometimes resemble that of a cliff diver (chest out, arched back), but a spin or curled ball roll or other flourish isn’t included in those dives from the highest platform. Can you explain why – it seems like the timing might accommodate such a move.
FS: Our ceiling in our warehouse is too low, so we have to dodge the I-beam and the ceiling. From the third level (the 30 foot platform), all we can do is dive straight forward—some land on their back. We’re going to spend some time rehearsing when we get to the River to River performance site. It will be more fun to fly without a roof over our head.
I think Elizabeth is at a moment in her career where she is encouraging people to flourish and express as much as you can. You can do anything you want to, as long as you have time to do it, as long as it doesn’t compromise you or the next move or someone else. You’ll see some falls, half turns, port de bras happen from the second level.
NYC ARTS: The audience can hear you shout out moves at your performances, such as “Trisha Brown” and “Tweety Bird.” Is there any new movement vocabulary or language you’ve developed to create Ascension and Human Fountain?
FS: Oh yeah, all the time. That’s part of her body of work. We use those texts to cue each other and a lot of them are fundamental and important to the piece. In Ascension, there’s “the heart attack quartet.” There’s a lot in Human Fountain. The ending moment is called “mass exit.”
NYC ARTS: Elizabeth speaks about the goal to convey the truth in movement. She also wants the work witnessed, and to elicit a physical response from the audience. Are there some moves the company has mastered, that the audience perceives much differently than you intended? As an example, I’m thinking of traditional dance moves that are easy and win applause and ones that are extremely difficult and go unappreciated.
FS: Everyone wants to be in the bungee piece Kiss the Air so badly because it looks like so much fun. In fact it is one of the hardest pieces to endure, ever. The harness hurts your hips, your ribs, it prevents you from breathing, it squeezes your organs; it torques you and makes you want to vomit in the beginning. It looks bouncy and light and the performers do it so well and it’s one of the most deceiving things I’ve ever seen. It’s a four or five minute quartet. It’s grueling.
NYC ARTS: What makes a good Action Hero (company member)?
FS: A good Action Hero has a flexible mind and good joints. We put dancers through a three-day audition and we can see by the third day who stuck around, the person’s attitude, what their bodies are able to endure. We offer a 90-day trial contract and touch base again to see if it’s a good match. We rehearse four days a week for 4 hours and 15 minutes.
NYC ARTS: Has your own technique and approach been perfected, or does it evolve with your experience? Does the approach change with physically aging?
FS: Yes, yes and yes. My technique is evolving a lot. I’m able to enjoy myself a little more after being in the company for eight years. I’m able to have fun. I have moments of micro panic—"holy sh-t, I almost died!"—but those are fewer and fewer now. The moments of feeling great and having amazing thrills are increasing. I do what I can. Am I holding my breath? Can I free my neck? Can I lengthen up or down? Can I use the ground more? I am the oldest and senior company member and I see younger dancers struggling a bit with their shoulder, back, neck, and I don’t know how they do this work without a "tool bag" that they can use at the end of the day to decompress and restore length and width and space in the joints. If I didn’t have my tool bag, my body would have been done long ago.
NYC ARTS: Your works usually include machines, contraptions, high platforms. In the creation of work, what role does calculating math and physics play? Who does this homework, and at what point in the creation?
FS: When the equipment comes into the space, most of this work has been done by Elizabeth and the engineers who have designed the machinery. So our job is to play and explore and be curious and discover new possibilities. Elizabeth wants to know about force, mass, velocity. That’s her area of expertise. But we as dancers, we just do what we do intuitively.
NYC ARTS: Does someone performing this work embrace the response to being frightened, or do you all have very few issues with fear in the first place?
FS: I think we’re all very fearful. We do it not because we’re fearless but because we’re interested in becoming braver. Elizabeth doesn’t want performer to be put in dangerous situation where something badly wrong can happen. The idea is creating the illusion that challenges certain laws of physics that is a little more uncomfortable than doing a tendue or an arabesque. It’s done by professionals who know what they’re doing. How can we do this consistently and safely? How can we perfect the technique? And how can we make you believe that this is extremely dangerous (some of it is dangerous). The idea is that we have a consistent technique to do what we do and feel safe, but to fool you into thinking it’s dangerous. That’s the true role of the Action Hero.