Seven members of Streb Extreme Action performed in Rhode Island this Saturday, October 14, 2006, at the Providence Performing Arts Center in the production titled Wild Blue Yonder. The performance featured eleven unique and nerve-wracking pieces that each presented a different aspect of the sheer power of gravity and the human body.
The company’s show could bedazzle nondancers and dancers alike; there is nothing intimidating or stuffy about it. Popular hits from several different decades play before the show and during intermissions. The set credited to Michael Casselli calls attention to a red and blue color scheme and an interesting arrangement of jumbled equipment, including poles, scaffolding, and various machines placed about the stage. The performers are not distinguished by their gender through their costuming; they all wear a series of sports tights and fitted shirts in dark, solid colors, with various colored or white crescent slashes. Shelly Sabel’s vivid lighting and Aaron Henderson’s video projections create visual effects that change for and within each number and morph between them, sending bright-colored shapes, letters, numbers, drawings, photographs, and colors dancing across the huge screen at the back of the stage. None of these theatrical elements, however, detracts from Streb’s dedication to plain action or to commanding, unswerving moves that happened at the speed necessary to accomplish a given task.
The opening piece, “Orbit,” features two dancers, roped and harnessed, that fly around the tall pole to which they are connected at center stage. The bodies become free-flowing and unrestricted as they intersect creatively as their supporting ropes coil about the pole. They float and swim through the air in slow motion, as if they were in a giant pool of water. The two simply lie supine on air, swinging farther and farther from the pole as their ropes unwind and they gracefully soar above the stage; the performers defy gravity on almost all levels. The camera located at the top of the pole magnifies the aerial view of the performers, illustrating their control, fearlessness, and precision while soaring through the air.
Another piece, “Moon,” is also an extended thought-provoking ploy about gravity. Six people perform lying down on a blue floor while an overhead camera projects their images onthe giant screen behind them; the live feed of moving dancers lying down on the blue floor, when projected vertically on the back wall, creates gravitational confusion. The ground seems frictionless against their slippery unitards and the bodies slide effortlessly across the surface. At first, the scene is baffling: The bodies resemble amoebas that are blubbering about under an electron microscope. However, as the work progresses, humor becomes visible and the images are comprehended. When the dancers crunch and creep along the floor, feet braced against its back edge, their images walk awkwardly erect on the wall. Their laborious exercises produce impossible, deceptive actssuch as athletes forming wobbly human pyramids; standing or head-balancing on a partner’s single, upraised hand; or flying upward with no apparent source of propulsion. The image of a gravity-free world is one that is difficult to imitate, yet Streb does the near impossible, per usual.
In the opening dance of the second half, “Ricochet,” not only do performers repeatedly run forward and launch themselves against a large, transparent pane of clear plastic, but they also press against it, slide down, and mash their faces into the kind of extreme distortions that are unseen in face-to-floor impact. The dancers slam into the Plexiglass wall like birds flying into a bay window; the Plexiglass is amplified to stress the impact, but the impact cannot go unnoticed by any living being with the capability of vision in the theater. Another piece that was particularly astounding was “Ripple.” This work features performers venturing across a stretched truck strap. The dancers dive, run, hop, leap, and bend over around and under the strap; they even walk on it as if it were a tightrope at the top of a circus tent. The men and women can jump on independently, perch a second, and jump off, which ultimately leads to a horde of crazy racing fumbles. At another point in the dance, Streb may have intended to poke fun at ballet’s courtly assists, which is exemplified during the “Rose Adagio” in the ballet Sleeping Beauty. Four people rotate a female dancer balanced atop the strap in a ballet attitude until her legunfolds into a balanced, straight, vertical arabesque. But then the rest of the dancers fall facefirst onto the mat, not a typical ending for Sleeping Beauty’s suitors. This work is yet another example of a witty and imaginative blend of dance, circus, and extreme sports. The strap appears to barely move as the performers maneuver on and off it, but at each human impact, video cameras set up near its end project on the back screen a vivid frenzy of vibration. The visual effect presents the impact as primitively as it’s actually happening experientially in the dancers’ bodies. Additionally, the audible noises the dancers make as they slam into the strap all at once and hit the floor beneath it convey impact pretty expressively.
The most crystal-clear memory of this show was that the dancers fell down—very hard and from very high. The company essentially toyed with physics: fighting and illustrating thelaws of motion and gravity. Dancers bounced over and on one another, pulled each other with ropes, jumped into Plexiglass, hung from hoops, and slid across surfaces. The performers yelled cues and thudded onto mats. There was nothing fake or abstract about this show. Everything was real. The work that Streb does is labeled dance, but it is also something more than that. It is physical brute strength and power against the rules of nature. She pushes herself and her dancers right to the very edge; furthermore, she pushes her audience members there, too. With this performance, Streb has made her point. These dancers are pioneers and champions; even as they thrill the audience with spectacle and theatricality, they are testing what human beings can accomplish.
This is an excerpt from Writing About Dance.