Streb: Forces STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) (see Off Broadway). Created and choreographed by Elizabeth Streb. Directed by Streb and Robert Woodruff. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. One intermission.
Streb: Forces—In brief
Elizabeth Streb's action-filled show, codirected by Robert Woodruff with music by David Van Tieghem, features company members executing a range of movement-based daredevilry with the help of physics, strength and pure guts.
Streb: Forces—Theater review by Helen Shaw
The constant preoccupation of Elizabeth Streb's dance-action work Streb: Forces is how to make a human being fly. There are repeated references to the Wright brothers, Larry Walters (the DIY balloon adventurer) and superheroes—not to mention actual levitation practiced by Streb's “action engineers,” who soar above us, powered by various machines, harnesses and their own spring-loaded legs. The oft-noted irony is that Streb, of course, is our national poet of falling, the inventor of a smashing, crunching aesthetic that began 30 years ago with the choreographer flinging herself off a ladder and has turned into its own genre of muscular performance. Appropriately, the new show alternates between falling and flying—exhilarating physical sequences colliding with ill-conceived videos, which act like a kind of intermittent gravity, dragging the best moments down to earth.
At its heart, Forces is a neon-colored, high-energy smorgasbord of Streb's many experiments, staged in a peppy, kid-friendly atmosphere. As DJ/MC, Zaire Baptiste shouts encouragement and carnival-barker patter as nine resilient dancers hurl themselves against Plexiglas walls, toss themselves from dizzying heights, perform feats of derring-do beneath spinning I beams and race across a series of concentric spinning discs. This last machine permits the gymnast-dancers to strike amazing poses, leaning into centrifugal forces to hold upright gestures that ought to collapse. “This is…The Matrix!” hollers Baptiste as a man bends himself backward for a ridiculously long time. Ignore the pinball theatrics and they've made a beautiful tableau—and it's not the only time you find yourself laughing with astonished delight.
Streb, though, isn't content with orchestrating an acrobatic revue. In collaboration with associate director Robert Woodruff, she fuses the acts into a continuous spectacle, covering the transitions with arty black-and-white interview snippets with…herself. In these clips, she explains her motivations, her requirements for her fearless dancers (“They have to not worry about the future”) and her legacy. Elsewhere, Streb has talked powerfully about her work, but these interludes are risibly self-important, not to mention tonally ridiculous. The action bits roil with goofy energy, Strebbers yelling, “Get it, girl!” as a woman in hot-pink-and-black spandex boings off an enormous rotating wheel. Then, suddenly, we're watching a Bergmanesque shot of Streb declaiming about physics. Then we're back to the playground. Then back to the portentous claptrap. It's bananas.
Luckily, the children in the audience seemed to largely tune out the doc-style video. And as for the adults, we were treated to vintage Streb—a revival of “Little Ease” (now called “Escape”), a gorgeous work with a dancer struggling in a box high above the stage. When this choreographer is at her best, we see her extreme physicality marry metaphor and passion.
It's hard not to get a contact high from the adrenaline of the performers, who are just ten feet away; exertion and effort have their own lyricism, and the dancers (particularly incandescent Samantha Jakus) radiate joy. Even Streb's purpose-built Williamsburg venue is an ode to her relentless efforts to spread the action gospel—the whole enterprise testifies to human strength and will. So the titanium Streb has some all-too-human weaknesses. Parts of her show fall down, but we have ample evidence that this is an artist who knows how to pick herself up again.—Theater review by Helen Shaw