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Flash Review 3, 2-13; Ready, Set....
Up, Down, and Every Which Way But Loose with Streb's Action Heroes

By Jessica Swoyer
Copyright 2002 Jessica Swoyer

CHICAGO -- Elizabeth Streb's latest visit to Chicago brought Streb Go: ActionHeroes to the Museum of Contemporary Art this past weekend. Described in the program as an animated flipbook, Streb Go: ActionHeroes is based on the choreographer's original work "ActionHeroes," which the company has been touring since 2000. "ActionHeroes" traces the lineage of Streb's own physicality, celebrating stunt artists whose feats, the choreographer maintains, have far too rarely been acknowledged. Figures such as Evil Knevil, Cannonball Joe, and Annie Taylor -- the woman who crossed Niagra Falls in a barrel -- may have often thrilled general audiences, but were also disdained by them. But to their devoted fans and followers these daredevils are heroes in their own right. Streb celebrates and elevates them through her art.

The MCA's small theater presented Streb's larger-than-life, highly athletic movement and multi-faceted set in an intimate package: a jack in the box ready to explode upon opening. Using video projection, still images and narration, ActionHeroes consists of two acts sub-divided into titled sections that in a matter-of-fact manner tell what is to come, such as the opening sequence Rise and Fall. Like her titles, Streb gets to the point immediately, as her eight dancers stand face forward on a beam -- part of the company's portable 20-foot-tall metal box truss -- and as it begins to rise they each take turns falling to the mats below. Terry Dean Bartlett is the last dancer to fall, waiting until the beam has nearly reached the top of the stage before free falling, landing face down with a loud and effortful wallop. In "ActionHeroes" there is no warm-up -- not for the audience, at least -- and it is this mentality, displayed in Rise and Fall, that sets the stage for the rest of the show.

This art form, a movement style in which dancers seem to completely give themselves up to faith, is what Streb calls "Pop-Action Technique." The technical demands on the Streb dancer, though, can only fully be appreciated when one can empathize with these demands. Perhaps this is why Streb includes an audience participation moment in which she instructs us how to feel the ground, be aware of the body in space and squeeze the muscles tightly -- more commonly understood as holding on for dear life. However you explain it, these fit and able bodies transform themselves into torpedo-like structures that not only blast through plexi-glass but also become lithe and malleable on landing.

As much as Streb's work greatly incorporates physical impact -- with bodies slamming against mats and walls or being packed like sardines into a tiny box -- she does not solely depend on it. In "BiLevel," the choreographer again includes the moving beam. This time, however, she choreographs a sextet. With three dancers on top of the beam and three dancers hanging from it, we see how dancing in unison can be performed with and without a "floor." The actual movements are rather simple, including v-shapes and 360- degree rotations, but when performed in unison on two levels it looks as though the dancers hanging below the beam are an extension of the dancers firmly on top of it. This re-orientation of perspective for the audience as well as for the dancer is what makes Streb's work anything but another circus act.

There is a truth to Streb, her work and the company that exists because of her nod to the laws of nature. In no way is she ever trying to deny our human limits within this world. Rather, she is making us aware of our human movement potential. In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune's Ruth Lopez, Streb said, "We can show them that they are moving animals. I try to share with the people in the room that they can learn how to fly." While this comment has a romantic twist, "ActionHeroes" confronts the reality of this idea, not only by showing gorgeous swan dives finished with loud thuds but also by including a quote from Evil Knevil admitting that "it's the landing that's the problem."

Streb's humor is obviously just as honest. In the second act, a section called Edge reveals the dancers creating a human sandwich against a clear plexi-glass standing wall. Perpendicularly between the glass and the human pile is a smooshed performer. As the weight of the pile begins slowly decreasing, the dancer's body slides against the glass, leaving greasy face marks as his lips, cheeks and nose press into the wall, squeaking all the way down to the floor. A miked set amplifies the sounds made by the contact of the body. There is no way to get around the silly faces that are made as the dancer slides down that wall, but just as we feel an urge to laugh we cringe at the thought that what we are seeing must also be painful.

The grand finale of "ActionHeroes" spoils us with a full-company trampoline act called simply "Up and Down." But simple it is not, as we are offered a feast for the eyes and the senses. This is the one moment where if the audience could've, it would've joined in. Imagine jumping on a trampoline and having to catch the double bounce of your partner in order to get enough height to dive from the center of the trampoline to the mats below, all the while being careful not to over-dive in the event you might miss the mat altogether. Now imagine eight more people weaving themselves on to and off of the trampoline. This is "Up and Down." Bodies not only demonstrate once again the art of the dive, but also the ability to hover horizontally above the floor. With the vertical advantage the trampoline creates, Streb uses the line of the body placed in different geometrical planes to create a complex pattern that as a whole constantly shifts formation. Once again she challenges the way we look at movement and space.

Dancers in Thursday night's performance included Sheila Carreras Brandson, Brian Brooks, Lisa Dalton, Chantal Deeble, Nikita Maxwell, Eli McAfee, Weena Pauly and the previously mentioned Terry Dean Bartlett, who also choreographed the sections Gravity and Spin.

Combining Nick Fortunato's video segments of Houdini and other daredevil types with their stories, Streb Go: "ActionHeroes" allows glimpses of those who have dared to discover "what if ?" and sends the audience on its way to ponder just that.


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