Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Fly-splat!

I took an Elizabeth Streb promo video to the Milligan School of Ballet in Redford, where I teach modern dance once a week to a class of gifted, advanced ballet dancers. We turned out the lights and stretched out on the studio floor in front of the television. They watched the video and I watched them watching. I'm not sure what they expected to see, but I'm pretty sure they didn't see it. Pretty soon, mouths were hanging open in awe and astonishment, gasps of delight and disbelief burst out unbidden and, as usual for my Thursday crew, they couldn't stop talking about it: "Oh my God!" "Cool!" "How can they do that?" and (my two personal favorites) "Is that dance?" and "I want to do that!"

Whether Elizabeth Streb's iconoclastic brand of movement-performance is or is not dance is a popular and logical question, but not one of much interest to me. And it's definitely not one I'm going to try to answer here. But the facts are these: Streb's work is an exploration of human movement aided by structure, technology and the (seeming) absence of normal, rational fear. Freed from fear, her dancers fly through space, splat against walls, run on walls, slam against floors and each other, dive from high places, smush each other, dangle from wires and get crammed into tiny spaces. The result is multilevel theater that demands attention.

On the first level, this work confronts basic human perceptions about safety, pain, compassion, wimpiness and courage (i.e., you wince and audibly gasp for the first 15 minutes or so). On the second level, once you've been assured that the dancers are indeed going to survive the performance, you start to look, to see, in a different way. Suddenly you're seeing line, form, structure and geometry, all crafted from living, breathing flesh and bone -- a human-body-as-Lincoln-Log kind of thing. And you're hearing differently, too. The grunts, exhalations, shuddering impacts and shouted cues ("GO! . . .GO! . . .) take on a surreal musicality. And, of course, there's the flight factor. Bodies flying and soaring through space (without suicidal intent) are, quite simply, gorgeous. They're something we just like to look at.

Perhaps Streb herself says it best when describing the goals of her eponymous company: "STREB is a platform for the investigation of movement, an attempt to expose movement's true nature by harnessing it, without debilitating it, within a confined space. STREB'S approach is to isolate the basic principles of time, space and human movement potential. The dancers of STREB contribute to the development of methods which prepare the body to execute the moves required by the dances. This is achieved by the development of specific muscles, the exploration of timing and space, the unusual placement of body parts, air aim and the continued use of felt-timing."

Elizabeth Streb has been making dances since 1979 and formed STREB in 1985. STREB has performed throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. The choreographer has won many awards, including Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships and a three-year choreography fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Throughout her decades of dancemaking, she's even developed her own movement vocabulary: "clump-drop," "pop-suck," "fly-splat."

You can see what these words mean when STREB flies into the Power Center in Ann Arbor on Friday and Saturday. The performances will be a veritable dim sum of STREB, including "Fly," "Up" "Bounce," "Across" "Freeflight," "Wall/Line," and the magnificent "Little Ease," a terrifying solo for Streb herself, encased in a tiny box. Whatever you may think as you leave the theater, may these five words echo through your brain: Don't try this at home.

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