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Monday, August 30, 2010

What are you reading this summer? Part 3

Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out by Nadine George-Graves (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010)

Nadine George-Graves's comprehensive study of the art of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush Women is the gift of an embodied approach to research. She has examined this acclaimed troupe from every possible angle--including from within, taking company class. She backs up her insights with copious details from many examples of Zollar choreography and the artists' extensive community engagement.

Although informed by scholarly theories and methods of analysis, George-Graves's 206-page volume is written for a broad audience and largely free of academic jargon. This important work will benefit anyone with an interest in contemporary Black choreography, indeed, anyone thinking or writing about dance of any kind. But I want to give a strong recommendation to activists for its documentation of the powerful confluence of art, spirituality, healing, community and social justice. And I especially want to see this book in the hands of Black women—even if they never bother with concert dance—for its example of honesty and its celebration of personal and communal agency which, as the author writes, “promotes a relishing of the [Black female] body, trying to take the body back” from the centuries of myths that have obscured it and fostered its exploitation.

STREB: how to become an extreme action hero by Elizabeth Streb (The Feminist Press, 2010)

Elizabeth Streb is an artist of turbulence, one who races towards the unknown and danger and potential disaster with scientific curiosity, drawing inspiration, she says, from “slapstick, accidents and labor.” Not content with the standard issue nomenclature of dance, she seeks to forge her own vocabulary of motion based in personal challenge and investigation. Her company holds events--”events of desire and purpose”--not presentations. Her performers engage in PopAction, not dance. They are extreme action specialists, not dancers. And, yes, they are heroic. Heroes don't stop to ask why, she says. They ask how; they take action.

Since evolution has not yet provided a way for humans to fly unassisted, Streb has decided to take the initiative. Appropriately, with this book, Streb gives us a wild ride—part-memoir, part-manifesto, part-Book of Shadows. Just as her method of making motion avoids transitions, her text avoids predictability. At times, following Streb's turns of mind can be as exhilarating--and, frankly, hair-raising--as watching her troupe at work.

Like John Cage—cited as an influence, along with Harry Houdini, Philippe Petit, sound-barrier-breaker Chuck Yeager and Niagara Falls barrel-jumper Margaret E. Wagenfuhrer—Streb is “frightened of the old ideas.” Trained in conventional dance theater forms—from Humphrey-Weidman and Limón technique to classical ballet—she's after experience that eschews decorative artificiality and zooms in on real moves. Real means irreducible; it belongs to itself and stands for nothing else. It belongs to Now. She brings to this quest a working-class daughter's instincts about why concert dance might appeal only to a select, privileged audience—a situation she's committed to busting open in every possible way. See her “new operating system for audience sovereignty” in which you will recognize very little, if anything, of your current experience of going to the theater.

Elsewhere, she writes, “I want the STREB Extreme Action performances to do something to the audience, to cause a physical reaction so strong that they feel that some of the moves have literally happened to them.”

Heaven help us. But not only is she right on about that, she's right on about what forces might be in play when movement, of any kind, works powerfully for the watcher as well as for the doer. In the absence of that visceral, empathic connection, we have distancing and boredom.

I was struck, too, by a passage in which Streb contrasts the way circus space has been purposefully designed for that spectacle's needs with the circumscribed way dance artists traditionally engage space:

Movement artists...have always settled for already existing places: opera houses, theater stages, or music halls...presentation spaces designed by others, for other disciplines...the majority of the available visual space, the vacant twenty feet above performers' heads is empty, not used, and mostly ignored.” Of the conventional dance studio, she writes, “What could a body do in such a sterile environment? How could you fly there?”

The photos included here provide wonderful documentation of Streb's early performance career as well as offering a taste of the exciting development of her work. My favorite has got to be Tom Caravaglia's photo of the two performers riding the huge wheel from Revolution (2006) which not only shows their strength but captures a sense of their radically-altered orientation in space, their bold claiming of some of that high void above the ground.

Anna Deavere Smith's foreword is, as you might imagine, a joy to read. These two brilliant, unique artists have become fast friends. Unfortunately, there's the puzzling matter of the transcript with which Streb concludes, and potentially undermines, her book—a half-hour, largely inarticulate Q&A session in which the actor-playwright keeps circling around and trying to press Streb to directly address the issue of her fierce attraction to danger. Just remember, Streb's not big on asking—or answering—why.

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