Elizabeth Streb

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

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.