The last time Elizabeth Streb swooped through Tucson with her team of daredevil dancers, back in March 1997, the UApresents staff at Centennial Hall had to issue earplugs to the audience.
That's because every dancer--make that dance acrobat--was miked for sound, and the sounds they made went way beyond the delicate tapping generated by, say, ballerinas' pointe shoes. The STREB dancers routinely fly through the air, crash against walls, smash to the ground and plow into metal poles, creating an aural cacophony to go with their jaw-dropping movement.
Streb has picked up the usual dance awards for a choreographer of her stature, from a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to the New York Bessie, and she was even certified as a MacArthur genius. But she calls her work "pop action" rather than dance.
No word yet on whether earplugs will be available at this Saturday night's STREB fest at Centennial Hall, but the prospects of high noise levels are good. The troupe will be performing ActionHeroes, billed as a multimedia celebration of the unsung stunt artists who labor anonymously in fairgrounds, in circuses, in movies. Through video projection, narration, still images, music and movement, the eight STREB performers will tell the tales of such lowbrow action heroes as Evel Knievel, Cannonball Richard and Annie Taylor, the little-known "hero of Niagara Falls." The action takes place inside the "box truss power pocket"--a moveable performance space that the Strebbers lug from place to place. It has its own lighting, moving walls, screens and sound system.
Streb had a blue-collar upbringing in upstate New York, not too far from the crashing falls. Her father worked as a mason in Rochester. As a child, she says, she would go regularly to the circus with her parents. Lots of kids go to the circus, but what's surprising for someone so well known in dance is that the circus was "the only cultural event" she went to." No Nutcrackers, no Swan Lakes. That nitty-gritty introduction to performance inspired Streb to transform dance conventions.
Streb says she's always had a "desire for a utilitarian aesthetic, for movement to be about something, not just about manipulating the body. I came to dance thinking it was the art of motion, the art of action.
"It may be erroneous but I started with the premise: Why spend all your time on the bottom of your feet? There are many parts of the body."
She nevertheless took a conventional route into the dance world. Majoring in dance at the State University of New York at Brockport, she lived after college in both San Francisco and New York. But she was disappointed in the dance she saw in these choreographic hotbeds. Streb started experimenting with the angle of the floor, with vertical poles, then an angled platform. Eventually she defied gravity altogether, dispensing with horizontality and going for the vertical.
Since she formed STREB in 1985, her dancers have hurtled around stages all over the U.S., in Europe and in Australia. She's committed, she says, to "getting bodies to a new place in space."