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Letter from New York, 6-6: Slam Dunk
Streb's Stunners, Bartlett's Flotations in New Show

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- Streb's Slam Show 9, choreographed by Elizabeth Streb and Terry Dean Bartlett, is simply great fun. Here is entertainment with genuine thrills and chills. In the past, the Slam Shows have been too serious, too overwrought with the treacherous nature of the proceedings. That gravitas is delightfully absent in this production, seen May 27 at the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn, where it continues through June 17. Gravity is literally and figuratively supplanted and artfully utilized through organized spectacle fashioned for excitement and jovial flamboyance. The athletic prowess and graceful bearing of the Streb dancers continues to be a hallmark of this company.

For the first time in my memory, music has become an integral part of each Action Event (as Streb calls the segments of her shows). This thematic addition helps to propel the movement and the mood. In almost every case the music heightens the tension and stimulates interest while integrally tying together the separate events into a cohesive show. In addition, video projections of the performers on a screen upstage of the live action reveals an overhead view of the proceedings, providing an additional visual layer a la Busby Berkley. This unusual vantage point exposes the choreographic patterns, adding insight and humor without distracting from the performers as they undertake their Herculean tasks.

Elizabeth Streb opens the show by explaining the laboratory nature of her process and describing the community nature of her operation, from the "drop in anytime to see what we're doing" spirit of open rehearsals to the public accessibility of the lobby toilets, "available to all anytime we're open." She refers to her continued "action studies" as a Petri dish of movement exploration, thereby setting the stage for the show and providing our eyes and minds with an insight into how to view the proceedings.

For program-opener "Fly," choreographed by Streb, the ebullient Christine Chen is strapped into an articulating harness -- a type of gyroscopic device which allows her to tilt in three dimensions (yaw, pitch, and roll) -- mounted on a large metal arm anchored to a tall post positioned center stage. Chen and the arm are counterweighted to give her a near-weightless condition as she effortlessly spins, jumps, and leaps around the space as if in an open centrifuge on the moon. Joined by company members who direct her vertical trajectory and circular speed, she appears to fly through space. I easily ignored the mechanical arm as Chen and company's casual acceptance of her flight capabilities enhanced the magic of levitation and aided my suspension of disbelief.

In "Fly"'s hair-raising conclusion, Chen is propelled around the stage at breakneck speeds by the company, barreling head first in a crack-the-whip type fashion as her hair whisks by her companions with only inches to spare. It made me wince in fear that she would slide out of her harness and knock her head off. Exhilarating.

After un-harnessing Chen (a past contributor to this publication), the company scales the auditorium wall at house right and piles like sardines into a giant plexiglass box attached to the wall, about ten feet above the audience. (We had to crane our necks or rotate our chairs to get the full effect.) Thus begins the uncomfortable "Squirm," choreographed by Streb. Once the box is packed with the other dancers, Bartlett slowly squeezes his way into it through a slot in the bottom, squishing his face against the glass for our enjoyment. After doggedly squirming his way through this throng of sweating humanity he emerges out of the opening in the top, to victorious applause. After catching his breath, he dives back into the box, squirming his way down through the dancer pile while the audience moans. The sweat on the dancers is more than visible as Bartlett emerges from the bottom wet from head to toe.

The box work successfully covers for the scene change into "Surface," also by Streb, in which two 4'x10' sheets of three-quarter inch plywood sheets, one blue, one green, are manipulated while dancers climb, smash, and crush into the surfaces. (Hence the title.)The smashing and crushing is quintessential Streb, the dexterity that the dancers reveal while falling and flopping with these bigger than life sandwich boards impressive. But it's the edge-walking that really grabbed my attention: A dancer walks the converging edges of the two panels that are propped together forming a 4' tall by 10' long wall. It's not a lot of space for the bare foot to tread upon; it is an impressive balancing act.

One of my favorite Slam works by Streb served up on this program is "Gauntlet." Here large cement blocks are suspended on wires and swung through the stage space while the dancers navigate them. Their task is to avoid colliding with the blocks or each other while ducking under, running from, and chasing after the blocks and each other. Although everything seems to be under the dancers' control, there are times when my breath stopped at what could have been a direct hit as the blocks zinged past their heads in a near miss.

My other favorite on the program is Bartlett's "Extreme Gravity/Cascade," in which the performers perch upon a narrow truss-like beam and are pulled up toward the ceiling by powerful winch motors. They slowly ascend toward the roof, lying on their bellies. Tension increases as the dancers are elevated many feet above the stage. Just as the truss seems too high for a comfortable escape, the eight dancers, one by one, flop off their perch belly first, slamming onto the padded stage below. With only one dancer left on the truss, it finally stops its ascent near the ceiling, about 20 feet above the mat. Just to put things in perspective, an eight-foot drop can kill you if you land improperly, e.g. on your head. Bartlett, as that last man, belly-flops off the beam, his 20-foot descent seeming to take forever; another gasp was in order.

Following an obligatory audience interaction piece with kids of all ages, Streb reveals a giant, human-sized mouse wheel upstage center for "Revolution." This wheel is dancer-powered from the inside, like a mouse's, or from the top, like a circus performer's. Although the dancers alternate between inside the wheel and outside (on top of) the wheel, the top walking is the most engaging. They careen off the top of the curve as the wheel tips, flying head first onto padded mats. It looked as difficult and dangerous as it probably is. The action increases with such intensity that at one moment in which doom appeared inevitable, my audience partner grabbed my arm in alarm as a dancer catapulted off the top of the wheel in a less that graceful fashion.

In the end all is well and the audience roars with appreciation. Streb has concocted an entertaining mix of movement, action, danger, and athletics that is shaped and honed by the showwomanship that she has been perfecting for years.

It's not yet the greatest show on earth, but that's only a matter of time.

In the interest of full disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom designed the lighting for two of Elizabeth Streb's very early works: "Pole" in 1980 and "Ramp" in 1981, both performed at Dance Theater Workshop.

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