Elizabeth Streb

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

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You said that it takes you awhile to make a new show, but you choreograph different elements over time and put it together. So what does the whole show say? Do you even know?
It's true. I work episodically and follow what I'm interested in. Usually, a body of work has a synthesis. Movement, by its nature, is short, episodic and not durational, so when it gets stretched out to 40 minutes or so I think movement is an element, but it's not the subject. So I'm working with aspects of the subject as action with all the different pieces of equipment in this show. If you go from piece to piece, it would be climbing, falling, swinging, instant acceleration, lateral flight, the effect of action on substance—those are the two inanimate-object dances. Elasticized bodies. Those are the subjects, which end up being an overriding theme. What effect, for instance, does swinging have on someone? What memories do these things stir up? If I could make analogies to the smell of grass or your mother's perfume, an experience you had when you tripped once and felt fear—to try to gather the anthropological concepts. I think of myself as an American anthropologist but for movement. I have never been that popular in Europe. I think my iconography is out of the soil of the United States and it doesn't have the attributes of a European sensibility at all.

But you're choreographing part of the summer Olympics.
Yes. We're being commissioned for the Olympics. It just got announced formally on November 4th. It's called One Extraordinary Day: Streb Action. I think the air is the ultimate public space. We'll jump off the Tower Bridge. I start at the London Eye with a spoke dance. I wanted to walk up St. Paul's. We've been going back and forth for a year and a half to find out...we'll do Human Fountain in Trafalgar Square and they're letting me put it in between two fountains and I can make the fountains go up and down and light them and I'm so excited! I'm going to make a tribute to Trisha Brown: I'll walk down City Hall. [She pulls out plans and maps.] This is bungee jumping off the Millennium Bridge. And then these are plinths on the Thames and we're using our Air Rams to fly from one to the other. We're having a little trouble with that because they don't want anyone in the Thames, so I'm trying to explain why we're not going to fall into the Thames. It's supposed to be the most turbulent river. They said that if you fall in there you're dead. Hard to believe. We do this journey: Trafalgar Square, London Eye, the plinths, Tate Modern... then I walk down City Hall and 14 people get on the Tower Bridge. I have 14 high-speed bungees that fall and rise 30 feet a second.

I watched an interview with you where you spoke about your dancers and how they need to be prepared to potentially get hurt, right?
Yeah. You have to be willing to get hurt.

What do you do when they do become injured? You've had some problems over the years [notably with deeAnn Nelson who injured her back].
We spend an enormous amount of time making sure nothing [happens]. We had one harness break once; otherwise it hasn't been an equipment failure. It's been human error. But it's my fault. Anything that happens in that room, I'm responsible for. And a lot of times it has to do with—this is also about me as a director. If I notice that a dancer's reflexes aren't fast enough.... I mean it's upsetting, obviously, to talk about. There are certain human animals that know how to avoid a speeding bullet and others who don't. In the modern-dance vernacular I was also a fast-twitch person. Yes, I've broken my nose [many times]—I had a much nicer nose 30 years ago! But I haven't done some of the more extreme things because when I stopped dancing, I was 48 and it was 13 years ago. We weren't in spinning wheels. Anyway, when somebody gets hurt in the studio, we have a five-minute rule. Even though they say, "I'm okay." They're proud of being heroes. They're intrepid.

And there is adrenaline.
Yeah. So we just stop. People want a different degree of attention depending on their personality. We attend to it. We are trained in EMS. The injuries are mostly athletic injuries: You sprained your ankle really badly. [With] deeAnn, my serious accident—the ambulance came and took her away and she had to have back surgery because she fractured a couple vertebrae. I've gone over that so many times. What do you do when that happens? Thank God she just stopped. Don't move. There was a lot of drama around that, because I was having a fight with my main guy [former associate artistic director Terry Dean Bartlett], and it just exploded. And that's also my fault. I didn't know how to manage certain personalities. I'm much better at it now. And when you're doing dangerous things there can't be acrimony in the space. There can't be. So now I'm like a Pollyanna. If you're a moody person, I don't want to work with you. It's a whole mixture of things and I'm not blaming anyone but myself that it happened because I could have avoided it by realizing...I just could have avoided it.

What happened?
She was flying in on a tilted piece of plywood and her foot got caught and she fell and landed on her upper back. It was the most unlikely move. Now I'm vigilant: You do have to respond in half a second. If you're falling, there are a bunch of things you can do and I have to be able to recognize who has that type of response time and who doesn't. I used to think you could teach that. But you can't.

I loved watching the group perform the Fountain piece over the summer, and I was wondering if there was something different that affected the way you direct the group because of the accident. What do you think?
I think that it's true: I'm not sure I can really say this is why, but this is a joyous group. And there are even seven extra people on top of my nine. There are nerdy things. We have 400 kids a week [at SLAM], so you can't swear. If you have a habit of swearing and you get knocked in the head, which you do with my work, you don't curse. And I don't want you to say Jesus or God or Muhammad—nothing. Figure out another way to express yourself. You can scream. That's one of the things: It definitely came from the accident certainly and maybe I'm not as aware as someone who would look in from the outside, but SLAM is a public space and this January it will be nine years. My conception was to have this be like a public park. I didn't want to work in private anymore and I wanted this hybridization of exchange of all forms of action. Each dancer has to, according to contract, teach two kids' classes a week. I'm often interrupted when I'm rehearsing; [the dancers] have to realize these are our guests—even though they're strangers. When I first moved to SLAM, the company was used to undivided attention. I didn't even know what was happening—"You stopped watching us!" Well, people came in and I was greeting them. I said, "I'm not your mother." And demythologizing what my role is. What is a behavior and a habit of making action? Isn't it better and more vibrant in a public space with eyes that don't even know who I am watching? What happens is an artist gets older and more protected and doesn't hear as much criticism. I get criticism from ten-year-olds. Why do you keep doing that? But it's really healthy because of the generosity I require from the dancers. They all like it. That first company left within that year. They didn't like it; they wanted to go on working in private. I understand. They wanted to concentrate. Of course, do you really need quiet to really concentrate?

What are you going to do in a show if you can't concentrate? What about the Olympics?
Yeah. And the domain of action is public and that's what I'm trying to grab so if I become private...and also it's a civic thing. I'm questioning what is my civic duty. What do I want to contribute to the general public in a small-scale way? It's just so exciting to go to SLAM every day. Everyone is brought into the idea—my administrative director, my producing director, even my bookkeeper sit in open offices. You can't imagine the climate when the kids come in.

A certain performing style can drive me crazy, but with Human Fountain, I didn't feel pushed away.
I might have one in there, who is one of the extras, that works my nerves a little. I try to not give her any calls or anything because of that fine line between generosity and showing off. When I became a modern dancer, I was like, Wow—this is really stern. How do you perform movement? Maybe Alvin Ailey is one example. Maybe ballet is another and Cunningham is another, Trisha is another. How do you present the movement? Also [my work is] for you to think that you could do some of that. Rather than maybe the ballet thing, where you would think, I could never do that. I really want action movement to be generally accessible to all humans. It's not just to the people who are privy to knowing how to get [to a theater]. There was a huge fight when my [current] associate artistic director came in. Fabio is from a circus background; he's from Brazil; he's now my associate director. This [dancer] said: "That's not the way to perform!" STREB was pretty formal all the way through the '80s certainly and maybe even through the '90s. And then Fabio just smiled.

He is Brazil.
[Laughs] And I liked it! This other person hated it. He was saying, "It will ruin the work." I said, "Listen, I'm the director—relax. I like it." And as time went on, it became clear that maybe that is the way. The agenda is different at this point. I still think it's just as formal, but the presentation has morphed. It's warmer.

Kiss the Air! is at the Park Avenue Armory Dec 14--Dec 18, 20--22.

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