17th of December 2011


After seeing one of Elizabeth Streb’s extreme action performances, people still ask, “But is it dance?”  The second in a series of major dance performances at the Park Avenue Armory (December 14-22), “Kiss the Sky,” again poses the question.  Well, in my book, dance is motion, structured.  If we must, let’s grant that it’s human motion – which, for some, it need not be.  Anyway, just because Streb has reinvented the way bodies can move – she uses them as missiles – doesn’t make her work “not dance.”   

The vast drill hall is filled with vertical and horizontal trusses with their stabilizing cables anchored to massive, 6-foot cubes of concrete.  Jumbo projection screens above banks of bleachers, three on either side, flash a rotating “STREB” like Times Square billboards and later real-time and prerecorded details of the action they’re performing, along with Streb’s notations of the sections in her notebook.  On big mats that cover the ground, dancers in red, superhero body tights practice headstands and flop over on the floor like fish out of water.  

The show is organized into eleven scenes.  DJ/MC Zaire Baptiste prowls the floor in a suit, studded with tiny light bulbs – I want that suit!  As he announces each of the dancers’ names, they zoom down a zip line from towers at opposite ends of the space, sisty feet up, and slams, face first, into a thick tumbling mat that’s hanging about ten feet off the ground at the opposite end.

Then for the next hour, these intrepid athletes put them through a series of punishing physical actions that seem guaranteed to induce vertigo, concussion, and organ damage. In “Swing,” they do just that, hanging from two suspended hula-hoops, two, three, and four at a time, bouncing off a mini-trampoline to catch the hoop in mid-swing, then dropping to the mat in a belly-flop.  

In “Popaction,” they bounce around in a unison phrase on the floor; they flip their lying bodies over repeatedly in horizontal pirouettes, shoot their feet through their hands going  from prone to supine, toppling over forwards and backwards without bending like dominoes.  “Instant Flight” has teams of four, pull cables to yank a pair of harnessed dancers into the air by the smalls of their backs or their bellies.  

“Ascension” has nine of the dancers endlessly climbing a nineteen-foot ladder that their weight causes to rotate constantly like a slow-motion propeller, sending them upside down as soon as they’ve reached the top and counterbalancing each other on a vertical, spinning ladder.  Choose your metaphor. 

In “Human Fountain,” thirteen daredevils (the nine, so-called “action engineers” of the company plus four additional performers) sail through the air from three levels of platforms, stacked nearly three stories high, in swan dives, half rolls, and front flips; they crash land on the mats below.  Between bouts of diving, they stand still or pace easily on the platforms to “cool down.”  The pauses are not only a welcome respite for the audience from the vehemence, but probably also a necessary break for the dancers’ organs to recover from the bashing they’re subjecting themselves to. 

In “Wave,” they tumble, splash, and skid on their bellies across a shallow pool, smack in the center of the space.  And “Kiss the Water” is bungee diving action, where two guys repeatedly drop downward towards the water and rebound to the scaffolding above, before their cohorts slosh into the pool and shoot them horizontally and diagonally in the direction of the audience, like Superman in flight. 

Call Streb Action dance or what you will, it provokes re-examination of your precepts about dancing – and more.  It’s as glitzy as a circus with all the accoutrements – music and sound design by David Van Tieghem with Brandon Wolcott, roving spotlights (lighting design by Robert Wierzel), events staged double to play to both sides of the stadium seats at once, sleek costumes (by Andrea Lauer), and jumbo TV screens to capture what you can’t or don’t see.  

It is not meant to look slick and graceful, no Cirque du Soleil.  Seeing and vicariously experiencing the massive effort is part of the point.  But the emotional tension that all the energy, power, and courage of the performers creates is pretty profound.  See for yourself till December 22.

Photos by Stephanie Berger  

© Gus Solomons jr, 2011

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