"Genius" Takes Flight in the Park Avenue Armory: A Q&A With Choreographer Elizabeth Streb

STREB Extreme Action performs "Kiss The Air!" at the Park Ave. Armory in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall on December 13, 2011
(Stephanie Berger)

NEW YORK — When Elizabeth Streb first started studying dance at the State University of New York at Brockport about 40 years ago, she wondered why dancers primarily use their feet when the body has a larger surface area. That was the beginning of STREB Pop Action, the form of dance Streb conceptualized that incorporates gravity-defying acrobatics and stunts and won her a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant in 1997.

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Streb’s latest project, “Kiss the Air!” is currently being performed by her dance company at the Park Avenue Armory through December 22. Twenty dancers leap, fall, and fly through an elaborate set that encompasses a 21-foot rotating ladder, hoops, and water (ponchos are provided in case you don't want to get wet). The result is a thrilling performance to marvel at that conjures up memories of watching the circus or seeing a favorite superhero take flight. Next year Streb Extreme Action will make a global splash with a performance on the Tower Bridge for the 2012 London Olympics. ARTINFO caught up with Streb to ask her about how she conceived this innovative form of dance, the pain her dancers go through, and how she manages to work out the physics of her choreography.

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Explain how you conceived this gravity-defying form of dance. What inspired you?

Essentially my passion for movement everywhere, especially for machines and extreme action — questioning space and the attempt to change our experience and the viewers’ experience of it. I am also passionate about finding a way to harness the invisible forces of motion and ramping up the presence of these forces somehow. I wanted to invent action contraptions that served action as musical instruments served music.

The show was so exciting to watch. It made me feel like a kid again. How would you describe your style of dance to people who aren't familiar with you or your company?

We call it STREB Pop Action, based on the dream and belief of human flight.

How much did you train the dancers before they were ready for the Armory show? How many times did they rehearse on the actual set?

Two years, except for the water dances.

The movements are so physically intense. Would you call the training process painful?

Not once you get used to it. I would say it’s similar to opera singers versus folk singers.

You really have to have an understanding of physics for the type of stunts your dancers do and to design the props. How did you learn this?

I read a lot of physics and science books, and I am curious about physical causality.

Does your company offer lessons for those who want to try out the death-defying acrobatics your dancers go through?

Yes, at Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM).

Click on the photo gallery above to see images from "Kiss the Air!," on view at the Park Avenue Armory through December 21.

Watch STREB Extreme Action Company in this video.