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Bodies shot into space: Streb: Go! Action Heroes.

Slapstick Superstars
By Mae G. Banner

Streb Go! Action Heroes
The Egg, March 20

Elizabeth Streb’s heroes are Harry Houdini, Isaac Newton, Buster Keaton, and the hard hats who work construction on high girders. These are the thinkers and high-risk movers who inspired the choreography for Streb Go! Action Heroes, a sweeping, swooping rocket of a show on Saturday, March 20, at the Egg.

Streb’s Brooklyn-based company of four men and two women did not defy gravity. They embraced it. Every climb, bounce and spin off the troupe’s giant Erector Set construction climaxed with a full-body belly whopper onto the blue gym mats below. The satisfying pow! sounds were music to a comic book fan’s ears.

When it comes to action heroes, I always liked Batman and Wonder Woman more than Superman, because they had tools, not just muscles. Streb’s dancers—half the company members were formerly divers, gymnasts or acrobats—have lots of great tools: bungee cords, harnesses, metal flying machines, walls to walk up or bounce off, and aerial hoops to curl inside of, like the man in the moon.

These dancers also have the will and the skill to fling their bodies into space, to risk getting seriously clobbered by a fellow dancer in orbit, and to jump out of the way at the last possible instant. This they did, repeatedly, in a program of 10 exhilarating bits with such titles as, Free Flight, Bilevel, and the glorious Air.

Streb, a MacArthur Grant winner in 1997, founded her company two years later. Her goal is to reach the audience physically by displaying her dancers in extreme versions of everyday moves: walking, running, jumping, landing. She wants us to feel in our gut the risks the dancers are taking and to appreciate the artfulness of familiar moves.

In a pre-show talk, Streb said her dance heroes included Trisha Brown (for her daring play with everyday movements) and Alvin Ailey, who said, “Dance belongs to the people; we give it back to them.”

Streb’s populism permeates her aesthetic. You see it in the Brecht-style slide projections that label every dance, and even more in the occasional sign that says “Work,” projected during set changes that are carried out in full view by half a dozen stagehands in black jumpsuits.

Also, you can’t mistake these dancers for gods or fictional characters. They are people at work. One dancer may call the cadence, saying, “Ready? Go!” Or, a dancer may call moves in an aerial quadrille: “Arch. Curve. Diagonal. Roll.” And, they all shout when they’re moved to do so.

Above the mats, the two-level framework of girders, and the mylar backboards (the better to reflect the dancers’ movements), there’s a Times Square-type streaming sign with continuous comment in red-lights letters: “If you’re not flying, what’s the point? . . . The only thing you need is a good steady push . . .”

Then, there are the demystifying intros projected on the back wall: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law of motion.” Actually, in the quartet, Air, Newton morphed into Leonardo da Vinci’s multi-limbed image of man, with echoes of my favorite gym teacher, all combined in a set of everyday moves that were magnified, stretched, made dangerous and ultimately freeing.

Air was introduced as an homage to high-rise iron workers. Terry Dean Bartlett and Jonah Spear walked up a steep ramp—really, the backs of Christine Chen and DeeAnn Nelson, then stood on the women’s heads, bounced off their bodies, and did multiple somersaults while swinging in harness.

As a dancer swung out and back at high velocity, his partner/pusher on the ground sped out of the way, always just in time. I thought of the stunts we did on the playground swings, but, carried to the 10th power.

The constant near-misses became high comedy in Kit of Parts, a tribute to Buster Keaton that featured dancers swinging 8-foot-long two-by-fours while their buddies ducked with perfect comic timing. Then, Streb and another dancer stood with their backs to a couple of plywood walls, each with one square window cut out. The walls fell forward—splat—threatening to smash the dancers. But, no. The dancers remained standing straight and tall in exactly the right spot, so their heads poked through those windows. Streb just proved you can fit a round peg in a square hole.

When the dancers weren’t flying, they were sardining—layering their unitard-clad bodies one on top of the other in a human four-decker sandwich, or squeezing into a glass-walled coffin à la Houdini, then, amazingly, making room for one more, as Bartlett entered the box from below, squirmed among his sardine pals, rose out the top, and dived headfirst to the mat. The effect of Squirm was slow and lovely.

Chen was the star in FLY, a glorious demonstration of Newton’s first law (“a body in motion will remain in motion, unless . . . ”) Buckled at the waist into the crossed bars of a metal flying machine, she took a run and a jump, and then kept flying forever, round and round, faster and faster, in a grand tour de force, while her grounded friends helped out with the occasional push. Chen flew; they ducked; the audience cheered.

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