Elizabeth Streb

Before she conquers the Olympics, the hardware junkie takes over the Park Avenue Armory.

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Ascension

Ascension Photograph: Tom Caravaglia

In 2010, Elizabeth Streb defied gravity in Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, a momentous revival by Trisha Brown performed at the Whitney Museum. Still, this may be her biggest year yet: Not only is she choreographing events at the upcoming Olympics—on one day in July from morning to night, she and her dancers will fall, dangle and climb all over London—but beginning Wednesday 14, her company offers Kiss the Air! at the Park Avenue Armory. Included in the episodic evening are Ascension, in which dancers demonstrate an eternal climb on a 21-foot rotating ladder, and Human Fountain, a heroic translation of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. (The dancers pour forth like water.) Before a day of rehearsals at her Williamsburg Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, the choreographer spoke about her obsession with daredevilry.

I think your work is going to look amazing at the Armory.
The place is so huge. How can you take a human being and have it mean anything in such an enormously vast spatial terrain? I felt that I could handle it right now. We went back and forth: Should we put stadium seating in? Should people stand? This is the first formal presentation we've done in Manhattan since Lincoln Center Festival—it's a whole theory I have about how long it takes to make an evening work. It seemed disrespectful to not offer a place to sit.

You want a range of people too.
[Laughs] Yes! I want from age two to 100.

Is it possible to see everything from the seats?
We have projections on three screens. [Video designer Erik Pearson] is doing a preshoot because part of what we're trying to reveal are all the details of physicality and human action and flight and crashing, so there will be live camera angles filled into this. With the ladder piece [Ascension], they're on the ladder because they're hanging on. There's no other reason. So we wanted to reveal some of the mechanics of the handwork.

What is your theory about how long it takes to make a work?
It's not as if I have a master plan for the action I make or the structural containment for the process we're making—meaning my business. But now I have an action lab in Williamsburg, which has provided me with an enormous amount of freedom, a more flexible way of dreaming of the future. And it seemed reiterative that every other year—I love the Joyce, but I didn't want to do that. You could say that I don't really know what I'm doing on one level. I'm just walking in the dark and going toward whatever light I find interesting, and this seems right. For us, the investigation is so clumsy and continues to be so time-consuming. I have to ask myself, Am I going to spend another week on this one idea? Again, with the ladder piece, I wanted an eternal climb—this is a whole series of ascending acts— so everything is about investigating what could the content of action be? I'm still not convinced I know. We on the inside are like ants on an ant farm. We really can't get a perspective. There are all these what-ifs? What if the most potent and profound thing is just a single move? What if action is episodic, not durational, abrupt and not smooth? Action is causal. It is inhabited by forces, and the only way to tame those forces is to artificialize them. For instance, in Human Fountain, even though I'm trying to mimic the Bellagio fountains with human bodies instead of water, it really is just a falling dance. Of course, you have to land, get up and climb back again. I thought, It's enough. A body falling—that's the end of the story. With the ladder, I wanted it to have a utilitarian object: The ladder is what people use to get to the place they can't arrive at without it. I thought about the eternal climb—you're just climbing as if you're going up, but then it starts to whip and spin, and what I'm finding with dancers is that I still haven't gotten the eternal climb to happen. They start climbing, and when it moves, they cling. [Laughs] Of course they do! All of a sudden they're going upside down and being whipped off of it. So I haven't achieved that eternal climb; however, that's my interest, and we keep going back to it.

But the object is for them to never stop climbing no matter what?
Yes. I feel that not being a practitioner anymore makes me a better choreographer because I'm not quite as sympathetic. But Fabio Tavares, who is my associate artistic director, says, "Elizabeth, the reason they stopped is because they'll fall off." [Laughs] And also, the other thing is that if you're on two sides of a ladder, they're kind of in each other's way. One is going down, and one is going up. I still think that if you stay in a climbing situation, there's room, but once you spread out, you're hogging space.

And it has to be so precise?
It has to be perfect every time. And my journey about seeing if I can find a real move has been futile in a way—maybe a human can't do a real move. Maybe you would die trying. Darwin was right about our adaptive capacity that allows us to be sitting here right now. Otherwise we'd be dead. I suspect that a lot of what I ask them to do is not just anti-intuitive, but it wouldn't belong to the human species. That's why they're balking at the jump [in Human Fountain]. But what's so brave about this particular group of people is that they know that, and they'll keep figuring out how to make themselves push through the armor of their consciousness.

It's a fine line: You don't want it to be over-rehearsed because you want the audience to feel that moment of the dancer thinking, Should I do it? It's exciting to witness when it's real.
[Nods head] When it's really real. This is on my mind: Let's say we find a move in the studio. That was it, but I can never get back to it. Our business is based on repeating our pieces to take them on tour. We have a whole other touring show [Forces] that I haven't premiered here, and for it, I'm collaborating with theatrical artists like Robert Woodruff, who is my director. David Van Tie Hem is my composer. Jim Lewis is my book writer. Wendall Harrington is the visual-design person; he did Tommy. With every repetition, a piece and an idea disintegrates.

I don't totally believe that. It's up to the director to make the parameters so strict and simple that if they always go back to that, it remains pure. You don't want their habits to creep in or their personalities? You like personality, but you don't want them to corn it up, right?
No. There's a fine line about that. What I find is that if I'm away and I come back, that they slow down, and a lot of the force, which to me might be the subject and the fabric of the message we get aesthetically in the audience, is eased up a little. [At the Armory] we do something called 100mph. I've garnered some equipment from the cinematic industry and worked with stunt guys in L.A., which has been a real crass intersection. They're flirting with my dancers and stuff. Anyway, I've never been able to demonstrate instant acceleration and an immediate switch of directions. So you accept the fact that any body and that particle with mass has to slow down, stop and then reaccelerate. This thing is a duet—maybe a Streb pas de deux. So far, I've attached four cables to each dancer. They're standing there and then you have four people on the four lines. The pulleys will receive 100 miles an hour. That's why you fall at 100 miles an hour; humans can't really pull that fast. You see them whip forward and in the other direction. It's a very zany dance, but for me it's beautiful because I've never seen someone leave their spot in space so rapidly. We've worked on it for about a year because it's a little bit brutal to the body to get yanked like that.

What is Kiss the Water?
It's a bungee dance. It's Kiss the Water because there is a pool of water, and when you really bungee jump you kind of lance the water and it splashes, but you can't go into it. Usually bungee people go head first. I've always thought that if I could get a body to fall headfirst and stop an inch before the ground, that would be...

The scariest thing ever.
Scary-beautiful. You can't do that. This isn't quite that, but we've devised this distance pretty accurately. I've been working with bungees for 12, 13, 14 years. I've had a lot of unsuccessful bungee dances. I can't seem to let go of it because there's something magical about that.

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Ami Ipapo
Ami Ipapo

I was a dancer with the STREB company for five years, during which I sustained several injuries - the most notable being a head injury (from a swinging cinder block), a lacerated spleen (from a high fall) and second degree burns (from my costume catching fire during performance). As Elizabeth states, most injuries can be attributed to human error; but my burns were the result of negligence and the absence of a fire safety protocol – there was no fire blanket or bucket of water on site, and no fire extinguisher readily available. Having such an extreme passion for my work, and a fear of being “replaced” as a dancer during times of recovery, my tendency was to downplay the true severity of such carelessness. But as the years passed I grew more aware of my rehearsal and performance environment. I eventually was fired from the company in 2009 for calling attention to safety concerns, including the improper use of a harness (the “harness break” Elizabeth speaks of in her interview), which resulted in a dancer’s fall onstage. It seems that equipment failure is regarded as catastrophic in the arena of big Broadway productions such as "Spiderman," but in the non-unionized, uninsured world of Brooklyn art houses, accidents like these go unnoticed. In reading her interview I was relieved to find that her company is now trained in EMS, as that certainly was not the case when I was an active company member. (Though I am inclined to think Ms. Streb is confusing the letters “EMS” with “CPR,” which I hope she understands is not quite the same degree of first aid training.) When prompted, Elizabeth speaks about her one “serious accident,” when deeAnn Nelson fractured her back during a performance. It is interesting, though not surprising, how there is no mention of how Elizabeth responded to deeAnn's situation after the accident. There is no mention of how STREB did not provide its dancers with health insurance at the time. There is no mention of how the entire NYC dance community came together in support of deeAnn and, under the leadership of former STREB Associate Artistic Director Terry Dean Bartlett, threw a benefit show to help defray her medical expenses. And there certainly is no mention of how Elizabeth chose not to attend that benefit. When I joined the company deeAnn was clearly Elizabeth’s favorite dancer, and rightfully so. Anyone who has seen deeAnn perform can attest to her near-superhuman strength and agility (still today, with a steel rod implanted in her spine, she is competing in triathlons!) During my years in STREB, I aspired to move with as much power and grace as Dee, even after she was gone; in rehearsals Elizabeth would say to me, “Faster! Harder! Don’t you remember how deeAnn did it?” And now, to suggest that deeAnn’s accident was caused by a subpar quality of movement is both hypocritical and disrespectful. Elizabeth used to playfully call deeAnn “Amazon Woman,” a nod to her innate strength and power; she now claims that deeAnn didn’t have fast reflexes or the appropriate “type of response time.” I agree that as a dancer, and more specifically a STREB dancer, you willingly take risks with your body. I understand that there is always the possibility of human error, and most of us dance because movement is an essential part of our human experience. The issue here is not the fact that her dancers get injured, but rather the way that Ms. Streb handles these injuries, and interactions with her dancers in general. It is one thing to publicly criticize deeAnn Nelson, who has distanced herself from STREB for years, but what could be any less human than belittling one of your CURRENT dancers in a prominent publication? With only seven extra dancers in her show, I can’t imagine it would take very long to figure out who it is that “works Elizabeth’s nerves.” Elizabeth Streb is someone I adored, even idolized, for many years. But as time passes, I gain a greater understanding of what lies beneath the brave exterior. In her interview, Elizabeth lends the perfect word – she has become demythologized. - Ami Ipapo, former STREB Action Engineer

Ami Ipapo
Ami Ipapo

I was a dancer with the STREB company for five years, during which I sustained several injuries - the most notable being a head injury (from a swinging cinder block), a lacerated spleen (from a high fall) and second degree burns (from my costume catching fire during performance). As Elizabeth states, most injuries can be attributed to human error; but my burns were the result of negligence and the absence of a fire safety protocol – there was no fire blanket or bucket of water on site, and no fire extinguisher readily available. Having such an extreme passion for my work, and a fear of being “replaced” as a dancer during times of recovery, my tendency was to downplay the true severity of such carelessness. But as the years passed I grew more aware of my rehearsal and performance environment. I eventually was fired from the company in 2009 for calling attention to safety concerns, including the improper use of a harness (the “harness break” Elizabeth speaks of in her interview), which resulted in a dancer’s fall onstage. It seems that equipment failure is regarded as catastrophic in the arena of big Broadway productions such as "Spiderman," but in the non-unionized, uninsured world of Brooklyn art houses, accidents like these go unnoticed. In reading her interview I was relieved to find that her company is now trained in EMS, as that certainly was not the case when I was an active company member. (Though I am inclined to think Ms. Streb is confusing the letters “EMS” with “CPR,” which I hope she understands is not quite the same degree of first aid training.) When prompted, Elizabeth speaks about her one “serious accident,” when deeAnn Nelson fractured her back during a performance. It is interesting, though not surprising, how there is no mention of how Elizabeth responded to deeAnn's situation after the accident. There is no mention of how STREB did not provide its dancers with health insurance at the time. There is no mention of how the entire NYC dance community came together in support of deeAnn and, under the leadership of former STREB Associate Artistic Director Terry Dean Bartlett, threw a benefit show to help defray her medical expenses. And there certainly is no mention of how Elizabeth chose not to attend that benefit. When I joined the company deeAnn was clearly Elizabeth’s favorite dancer, and rightfully so. Anyone who has seen deeAnn perform can attest to her near-superhuman strength and agility (still today, with a steel rod implanted in her spine, she is competing in triathlons!) During my years in STREB, I aspired to move with as much power and grace as Dee, even after she was gone; in rehearsals Elizabeth would say to me, “Faster! Harder! Don’t you remember how deeAnn did it?” And now, to suggest that deeAnn’s accident was caused by a subpar quality of movement is both hypocritical and disrespectful. Elizabeth used to playfully call deeAnn “Amazon Woman,” a nod to her innate strength and power; she now claims that deeAnn didn’t have fast reflexes or the appropriate “type of response time.” I agree that as a dancer, and more specifically a STREB dancer, you willingly take risks with your body. I understand that there is always the possibility of human error, and most of us dance because movement is an essential part of our human experience. The issue here is not the fact that her dancers get injured, but rather the way that Ms. Streb handles these injuries, and interactions with her dancers in general. It is one thing to publicly criticize deeAnn Nelson, who has distanced herself from STREB for years, but what could be any less human than belittling one of your CURRENT dancers in a prominent publication? With only seven extra dancers in her show, I can’t imagine it would take very long to figure out who it is that “works Elizabeth’s nerves.” Elizabeth Streb is someone I adored, even idolized, for many years. But as time passes, I gain a greater understanding of what lies beneath the brave exterior. In her interview, Elizabeth lends the perfect word – she has become demythologized. - Ami Ipapo, former STREB Action Engineer