Sunday, December 18, 2011

STREB ascending

If STREB Extreme Action could hold onto the Park Avenue Armory indefinitely, the troupe's new show could easily keep running for years on the strength of New York's tourist trade alone. Oh, yes. STREB: Kiss the Air! is that kind of show and a world-class triumph for the mad genius (MacArthur-certified) Elizabeth Streb ("action architect and choreographer," according to her current self-labeling), her company of "action engineers" (not just dancers, thank you) and a regiment of technical and artistic collaborators. Forget Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and whatever Julie Taymor thought she was doing.  STREB: Kiss the Air! happens to be the real thing.

The visionary Elizabeth Streb steps up to the challenge of the Armory's enormous drill hall, filling it, from one end to the other, with lighting, huge video projections (including live videocam footage), massive scaffolding and equipment, a large, shallow pool of water, big sound and the formidable energy of her tribe of action heroes. She has developed and shown various components of STREB: Kiss the Air! over time, clearly honing and enhancing the choreography and risk-taking until it all stands before us like a mainstream-friendly hybrid of nouveau cirque, movie stunt work and the Olympics cranked up, like that Spinal Tap amp, to 11.

STREB DJ/MC Zaire Baptiste, wearing a row of lights up each leg of his pants, gets the action rolling by instructing us to disregard the standard theater announcement we just heard. "We want you to take out your cellphones, your iPhones! Take photos! Take videos! Upload them to Facebook...!"

How refreshing!

And for the audience--heavy on families with small kids--STREB: Kiss the Air! is refreshing indeed. The souped-up hybridization of everything Americans love--from extreme sports to action hero animations on big screen TVs--works because the discipline and skill necessary to pull it off are so much in evidence. Which makes me wonder if the reason most folks aren't drawn to just-plain-dance is because the actual skill and discipline it takes are not as nakedly obvious unless--as with certain big ballet companies or the Ailey troupe, for instance--it absolutely is. Dance, possibly, might not seem sufficiently hardcore. STREB? Now that's hardcore.

Hardcore and entertaining, not at all averse to showing its audience a good time, even if a good time means sitting there with your heart in your mouth because, at any moment, something could go wrong and someone could get seriously hurt. Elizabeth Streb herself might have started off in the rarified, purist territory of early post-modern experimentation, but today's STREB machine is built for people who love race cars, high-speed car chase scenes and Philippe Petit. It's built for the masses.

The 70-minute, multi-sectioned Armory program opens with harnessed performers, one after another, zooming over the heads of the audience and smacking into big square pads. They move on to Swing, in which bodies hurl--one at a time or in duets or trios--at and swing by two huge hoops dangling from metal scaffolding. Their movements on and around the swings grow more elaborate, their attack more daring, their cries, on impact and landing, more bloodcurdling. And if you somehow forget that these "action engineers" are, in Streb's mind, not just dancers but athletes--or military on maneuvers, even--they get an official break for re-hydration before moving on to a "pop action" drill lead by Associate Artistic Director Fabio Tavares Da Silva. As for that drill, think of it as an edgy kind of aerobics or yoga for action heroes, if repeatedly falling flat on your back were a kind of yoga.

In the daredevil world of STREB, weight and gravity are your frenemies. They make everything at once frustrating, thrilling and terrifying. Hence, the excitement of pulling or dropping away from bungee cords, slamming into mats or into one another, fine-tuning the velocity of a revolving metal ladder, and standing just millimeters away from the end of that ladder as it spins. For the audience, seated along either side of the long expanse of the Armory's drill hall, being close to all this action is a constant source of tension and rush.

Towards the latter part of the show, it can also be a frequent source of hydration--and I don't mean hydration of the healthful kind. Audience members in the mid-range of the hall are (imperfectly) shielded by Plexiglas and rain ponchos for good reason. All the belly flops and backflips in the pool kick up quite a lot of water, and a fair amount of it clears those Plexiglas walls. Hilarious fun to watch from a distance!

Not as much fun to watch at a distance--but still lovely, in its way--is Streb's Human Fountain section where the performers repeatedly climb up and leap from three levels of scaffolding to mats below in rhythmic patterns. This scaffolding is set up at the far end of the space. So if you happen to be closer to the hall's entrance, as my wife and I were, the action looks and feels remote--almost as if you were seated towards the back of a big, conventional theater. That's the only downside to the way Streb has arranged and utilized this great gift of space.

There is absolutely no downside to Elizabeth Streb's courageous Action Engineers: Sarah Callan, Jackie Carlson, Leonardo Giron Torres, Felix Hess, Samantha Jakus, Cassandra Joseph, John Kasten, Daniel Rysak, and Fabio Tavares Da Silva, with additional performers Tyler Ashley, Uys Du Buisson, Jessica Kreuger, CaCa Macedo, Mercedes Searer, McCurry Sherman, Ashley Caroline Walters.

Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem
Lighting design by Robert Wierzel
Costume design by Andrea Lauer
Projection design by Erik Pearson
Set and installation design by Elizabeth Streb and Hudson Scenic

STREB: Kiss the Air! continues through Thursday, December 22. For complete schedule and ticketing, click here.

Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (between 66th and 67th Streets), Manhattan


Jeremy said...

This is a very funny, well-written review. Nice job!

Christine- editor of The Dance Enthusiast said...

Hi Eva...
I was thrilled to bring my 11 kids from Teen Reviewers and Critics to this show...also bought them each Elizabeth Streb's Action Book.1. To be inspired by what a woman can what Streb has achieved and to see all that DANCE can be ... It was a great way to end the Teen course in dance experience... We sat in front with our rain coats... I was a bit downhearted by receiving letters from ex Streb peeps on my website about injuries during performance /rehearsal etc. ...These comments were added to a really nice feature Dance Enthusiast writer and associate editor wrote on our site... and I still don't know how to handle them... they were aggressive and , I thought at first an attempt to smear Streb, which I in no way want to do or be a part of... (even though I am very interested in pursuing a discussion of performer safety and compensation in the dance world )
Obviously, it takes a certain kind of performer ( not me) to agree to these super hero attempts... and these performers seem to do so with joy and fervor..
I really admire them.

Thanks for your article, it was a pleasure to read. and it captured the experience I had with my teen students.

Eva Yaa Asantewaa said...

Hi, Christine! Thanks for your comment. I'm glad that you enjoyed the review! I read your piece about STREB but have not read the comments you received. After seeing your Facebook post about it, I re-read the New York Times articles about the injury sustained by DeeDee Nelson and about the dismissal of Terry Dean Bartlett, who was one of my favorite STREB performers. I wanted to refresh my memory of that situation. At the time, I found myself unknowingly in the middle of things because, after Nelson's injury, Bartlett sent word to me (and others)through email and social media about the benefit for Nelson that he and other people were organizing. I put the information up on this blog, unaware of the backstory that Streb and Nelson had not been consulted and that Nelson did not need the help since she had health insurance. I only learned that later, from Bartlett, after Streb had complained about his taking this action. Re-reading the Times accounts, I feel that there is some information (about Bartlett's situation in the company and his working relationship with Streb) that I wasn't privy to--and I'm still not. So, I'm not going to judge either one of these artists at this point. Yes, the work is enormously dangerous. As I indicate here in my review of STREB: Kiss the Air!, it falls within the category of things mainstream America takes to its collective bosom precisely because they are enormously dangerous. While what Streb is doing is extraordinary, I don't think it's out of the ordinary, and the risk that she and her performers volunteer to take is not unknown to us. Personally, like you, I would not do these things nor, actually, would I encourage most performers to try them, but I have to say that, just like millions of others, I enjoy watching superbly trained and skilled performers.

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