Elizabeth Streb

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

0

Comments

Add +

There would seem to be so many possibilities.
Don't you think? I don't want to make the equipment disappear because I'm a hardware junkie—I love hardware as much as I love action and forces. Robert Woodruff came in the other day—he takes no prisoners. [He asks things like] "Why are you doing that?" "When that happens, wouldn't you look at the person?" You know how modern dance is. He'll say little things and suddenly the dancers will act like humans: It just shifts a little raison d'tre.

What's the idea behind Falling Sideways?
That's using a piece of action equipment called Air Rams. They can be set at any pressure. You step on this ramp, and it ejects you. I mean immediately. And Falling Sideways is exactly the speed of gravity moving laterally. It's a dangerous piece of equipment. So we're up to 30psi—pounds per square inch. We've had a bunch of injuries with it, so I'm very gun-shy about the darn thing. I really would like to go up to 40psi.

What kinds of injuries are your dancers getting?
Calf sprains mostly. When you jump, you normally pli—but this is a half second. It's a shock. If your impulse is to pli, and you think that's going to help you, it's just the wrong thing to do. The wise thing would be to not mess around with these things, but I think about the music industry. Why did I, right away, start using so much equipment? Certainly, the music industry did not regard the human voice as sufficient to carry all the language of meaning and content that sound could carry, so they started inventing harpsichords and lutes and stringed instruments. To be able to really contend with space and time that some of these devices create, the body has to enter into and deal with a condition. What moves can I do with my body that will have any poignancy or meaning? Then comes the timing and the rhythm of each action.

In terms of timing, there's the safety issue as well as the aesthetic issue, right?
Right. And you don't want to get derailed by either one. I try not to premeditate rhythm. I think that physical timing is radically different from musical timing and if it could be named, it would have a completely different set of apertures and integrals. It would be like searching for the iambic pentameter of action. My dream is that the timing and the pure kinesthetic experience ends up giving the audience an experience and not a story, so it skips the brain and goes to the gut. And a lot of people will say, "You're doing a spectacle, and you're just trying to be a show-off," but I feel that is pretty much the top of the line. I think that about Trisha Brown.

You were so great in Brown's Man Walking Down the Side of a Building at the Whitney. What was that experience like?
That was the most profound thing I've ever done. I've been in harnesses for years, but not that. That was the reduction of the reduction of the reduction of things we know. We know how to walk, but it was bizarre because I did not know how to walk [in that piece]. If there was ever anyone I wanted to dance with it would have been her, and I did audition once, but I didn't get in. I bet it was '76, before I got obsessed with my own work in '78, '79. I got cut immediately. I'm clearly not that kind of mover. But I joked with Trisha: "I don't give up. You said I couldn't dance with you then and look—I'm 60, and I'm dancing with you." Eureka! It makes me even cry to think about doing that. I just thought [as she was performing], You're just taking a step. Don't walk like Frankenstein. Your arms aren't that heavy. What are you doing? And I couldn't walk normally. I would do it for the next five years if I could.

Did that experience affect your relationship with your dancers or your work?
I think certainly. It's a transfer dance: You're taking a pedestrian movement and tilting it 90 degrees. But therein lay all the information about what I'm trying to do. If you're trying to make a world that's true and real and reveal something about physicality, the action leads the whole experience. It would have to be that basic and that deep. I used to always think that general truths were less interesting than slightly more arcane truths, but what's true generally is the hardest thing to get to, like the Pythagorean theorem. It's mind-boggling. How did anyone figure that out? I think that about Trisha and about many of the pieces she did: They are based on truth. But what on God's earth compelled her to do it? I'm not an enormous modern-dance fan. I think Mark Morris is a great choreographer. I can recognize people who work in a certain genre. I'm just not there with modern dance and probably the thing I'm making—it is modern dance if it were about generating new languages and vocabularies. It's just not that kind of modern dance. But to see Trisha and the subtlety of how the forearm and upper arm and the knee and the forehead and everything becomes the subject in the order of her events and you're thinking, Oh my God! I never looked at the forearm like that. The fingers! It's like Persian miniatures. You're seeing the detail. I think she's the only one that's made the body move in a new way, in every way. From the bottom up. She changes space.

Really? What about Twyla Tharp?
I haven't seen Twyla's work in a long time, but Trisha did something deeper for me. It'll take a long time to understand what she did. I'm grabbing at straws a little bit when I talk about her. But I think she's a soothsayer. She sees things others don't. And I just adore her, and I've stalked her for all these years and now I get to be friends with her and so there. Right? I get to just be around her.

I love that you auditioned for her.
I did for Twyla, too, but I got cut just as rapidly. She was a little mean. I think she said at that audition, "Will all fat people please leave the room?"

Oh, Jesus Christ.
[Laughs] And I'm just like, Well, am I fat? No, I'm not fat. I guess I won't leave. But you know from that experience, when we have auditions, I never send anyone away. I just think, It's a workshop. What's the big deal. I can see you. I don't know. I know that it's much more practical to do that. I have enormous respect for Twyla. Thank God for Twyla. Would there be other successful females in the field without her and Trisha? What's going on? It's a little disappointing. But I see Sarah Michelson. I saw Devotion. I was blown away by it. Did it not get nominated?

For a Bessie? No. Of course not.
It gives me the chills. Are you brain dead? I'm on the Bessie Steering Committee trying to reformat everything. And once we said we want more people voting, we want this, let's have it at the Apollo...but I really can't believe she didn't get nominated.

Users say

2 comments
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