Elizabeth Streb, dancer, choreographer and all-round action artist, shared her research on extreme movement, music and mindful mayhem with the MIT community during a three-day visit Oct. 18 through 21.
Streb, 53, founded the Brooklyn-based dance company, STREB, in 1985. She has won both a MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant") and a Bessie Award for her choreography, an explosive, gravity-defiant style in which performers bounce and rebound like they're in a mosh pit on Mars. STREB has performed in national and international venues and on television, including on "Late Night with David Letterman."
"Traditional dance is about mimicking music with your body, camouflaging gravity. But is that grace? Does grace require continuity? We create movement so you notice gravity. It's the opposite of ballet. We want the audience to feel the impact, feel the force, feel they've done the moves," said Streb.
Streb presented the 2004 Abramowitz Memorial Lecture, "Outer Limits: The Analysis and Accomplishment of Wild Action and Real Moves," on Oct. 18 in Room 34-101. "Outer Limits" provided a multimedia guide to Streb's innovative work, developed in the Streb Laboratory for Action Mechanics and performed by STREB dancers. Streb herself retired from performing in 1999.
The MIT Office of the Arts sponsored Streb's residency. While on campus, she visited classes in acting, composition and dance, and modeled layered black clothing, including heavy belted boots, on a motorcycle theme.
Like most pioneers, Streb has a complex relationship with her predecessors. On the one hand, her technique is "based on the belief that humans can fly," she said--a classical vision. On the other, Streb claims a cartoonist's turf. "Anyone who has ever slipped on a banana peel can understand what I'm doing. I steal moves from superheroes. I just landed in the dance world. I'm an action artist," she said.
While at MIT, Streb treated every venue as an opportunity for, well, more action art research.
Take her encounter with a wall in Kresge Rehearsal Room B, where Jay Scheib, assistant professor of music and theater arts, teaches acting and composition.
She demonstrated her technique to Scheib's students by standing up, then dropping abruptly and loudly to the floor, a one-woman WWF smackdown. "See? That's DROP. The body goes SOUTH." Heads nodded.
Suddenly, Streb was vertical again, hands flat against her sides. "NORTH. The body goes NORTH," she said. But her goal for Scheib's students was to head WEST, to fling their bodies onto the wall. To prepare, she guided the group through moves she calls "pops," "flips" and "switches," all involving sudden encounters with the floor.
Next came the challenge. "What if you all kept running even if that wall wasn't there? With extreme movement, part of the package is you may get hurt. Carefulness is so hard to cut through," she said.
Streb's bold certainty is contagious. Every student in Scheib's class bashed into the flesh-colored wall. They lined up; they did it twice. After that came chest-smashing, an art action done in pairs. "You wouldn't believe how much fun it is to smash chests together," said Streb, by way of encouragement.
In STREB performances, "we mike the surfaces. We'd like to know what sound the liver makes when it hits the spleen," the choreographer said. Scheib's class, unmiked, hummed Streb's favorite tune: crunch, thud, "Ugh!" and "Cool!"
Streb also did some action art research in the Stratton Student Center game room, where she experimented on the popular dance machine, Dance Dance Revolution otherwise known as DDR.
She became the student once the disco music started. Noe Kamelamela, a senior in materials science and engineering and a skilled DDR player, showed Streb how to keep her eyes on the screen while her heavy boots clomped up and down on the foot pads as they lit up.
DDR's clunky charm is all about gravity, noise, distraction, staccato, urban moves. Streb was won over.
"It's like hopscotch! It's like tap! It's 'Riverdance!' It's a playground game!" Streb declared. "It's beautiful! I want one in my lobby!"