STREB Extreme Action: SEA (Singular Extreme Actions)

by John Stoltenberg

Fans of STREB Extreme Action were out in force last night at Kennedy Center.  Enthusiasm in the Eisenhower Theater was at a fervor one might find at a rave or rock gig. The singular choreographic spectacle created by movement-art maverick and MacArthur genius Elizabeth Streb had come to town. And it was time to be amazed.

For those unfamiliar with the STREB phenom, a few words about what it is not:

• It’s not dance, it’s action. The performers are called action engineers. (There are nine in this show—Loganne Bond, Jackie Carlson, Leonardo Giron Torres, Felix Hess, Cassandre Joseph, Matthew McEwen, Daniele Rysak, Jamarious Stewart, and Fabio Tavares da Silva—and in their red body stockings they’re a cross between superfit Olympic athletes and special-forces action heroes.)

• There’s no story told. There’s solely those bodies in motion.

• There’s no score. The sounds and music follow those bodies’ movements, not the other way around.

• There are no narrational light cues; there’s no scenic depiction of a place. (Technical Director Matthew McAcion is scenic and lighting designer.) There’s just a raw stage set with apparatus and plenty of padding on the floor for when the performers fall and drop and plummet from heights. Which they do a lot. Full-on belly flops and every other which way is down.

STREB is the antithesis of Balanchinian illusions of lifts and pirouettes and phony weightlessness on foot-bound tiptoes. Gravity in STREB is not the opponent; gravity is home. Gravity is the causal syntax of every action and reaction. Gravity is the shared ground of being.

The program listed a dozen so-called action events with names such as “Tilt,” “Slam,” and “Air-Rams.” The apparatus included a trampoline for bouncing and bounding aground, a spinning ceiling-height ladder to clamber on and cling from, explosive platforms for propelling high dives, an enomous semicircular rig on which bodies teetered as it rocked recklessly.

There were mic’ed and enhanced sounds of impact when the performers hit the mat. And at times the auditorium boomed with such triumphant tracks as “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and “We Will Rock You.” (Audio Supervisor Zaire Baptiste is  resident DJ and music producer, and he was joined by DC’s DJ BEATrix.) But STREB is no ordinary aural or visual entertainment. It’s no ordinary anything.

For Action Architect and Choreographer Elizabeth Streb, risk and danger are elemental. In the work she conceives and creates, fear and pain get viscerally, vicariously vanquished right before our eyes.

“It’s pretty brutal, don’t you think?” said Streb with a wry smile as she was introduced to those who stayed for a post-show discussion.

Watching STREB is akin to the catharsis of contact sports except no one is trying to make anyone lose. Everyone is on the same team with a trust, cohesion, and intimate intuition that evince awe. Just as everyone in STREB is at home in gravity, everyone makes of no one the enemy.

With the unique art form Streb has created—what she called “the physicality of the theater of action”—she has achieved something not only wholly original but conceptually profound. There are dimensions of meaning in it that may not at once meet the eye.

For instance, someone asked her if there was an ethics to her art, and her answer was astounding. She explained that yes there was, and it has to do with class: People who are wealthy have the privilege of avoiding getting hurt. But people who are poor and going through rough hard times do not. And boom, just like that, all the body slams experienced by her action engineers—controlled and managed by their own agency—made mind-blowing political-sensorial sense.

She also told us what she told the folks of Cirque du Soleil with whom she was once invited to work: “They swing around in the air but they never land.” For Streb, telling the truth in her art means embracing gravity.

Something is also going on in STREB about gender. Among the performers on stage there is evident an equality undifferentiated by hierarchical gender norms.  And the effect is stunning. Every body is in motion without qualification by sex class. No one does anything everyone else does not do as well. There exists in STREB a theatrical vision of a world beyond gender templates that live performance of any sort rarely lets us glimpse. And that’s yet another conceptual brain slam.

There are lots of videos of STREB Extreme Action on line. Have a look.  They won’t be like being there. But they might make you wish you had been.

Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission.

STREB Extreme Action: SEA (Singular Extreme Actions) played November 4 and 5, 2016, at The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets for  remaining performances are available online.

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