Profiles of Late Style: Elizabeth Streb

Elizabeth Streb is a dancer and choreographer. A recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” award, she continues to push out the known boundaries of her craft. To learn more about Elizabeth Streb, visit: (Photos by Lowell Brown)
“Our job is to confuse people and take them to new zones.”

With a decorated career in both dance and choreography, Elizabeth Streb has spent the last 20 years inventing an entirely new discipline of movement and machinery. She calls it “extreme action” — a fusion of dance and athleticism, combined with a precisely timed set of movements that pushes dancer’s bodies to new realms of discovery.

A visit to SLAM, the STREB Laboratory for Action Mechanics, is disconcerting and energizing, confusing and awe-inspiring. It is rare to witness something for which your brain has no paradigm, but that is exactly what happens in the presence of Streb’s dance company.

Searching for the Iambic Pentameter of Action

Streb explains some of her philosophy that is built around rhythm and timing and risk:

“My intention has always been: What story can action tell that no other discipline can tell? What is the iambic pentameter of action?…Our job is to confuse people and take them to new zones. New zones can be temporal and spatial and physical. …It does have to be extreme; it has to be dangerous. The issue of a debilitating injury is ever present. There is a whole wide range of latitude between that half-second that you won’t be able to come back from and accomplishing something someone does not understand- they see a disaster but a disaster never happens.”

Watching the company perform you do find yourself bracing for disaster. Whether it is eight people coordinating movement on a giant trampoline, dancers swinging through a rotating I-beam, or individuals hurling themselves off platforms, Streb is fusing body and machine in a way that pushes out the known boundaries of what is “possible.”

And she is doing it in a way that invites the viewer into a captivating art form. “I tell people: we are going to make a physical and intense story with part of our bodies. I am storytelling, but not in a linear way. If you go into a Shakespeare play…they have to say one word at a time. If you said all the words of Hamlet at once no one would know what you were saying. But action is story bridging. I can do a thousand places and sectors in time and space and body and rhythms. And I can do it all at once. This is my one-second phenomenon. It’s like ‘What Happened?!”

What is Possible? Extreme Action as a Method of Inquiry

Late Style for a professional athlete comes at an earlier age than other disciplines, but the hallmarks of building on life experience and asking the “big questions” of ones craft are clearly evident in Streb’s work. In fact, one of the essential differentiators of extreme action as an art form is the commitment to asking questions.

“The inquiry that the dancers engage in, and their curiosity about what is possible, is a vital part of what makes this company possible. I think this is more about the method of inquiry that I’ve developed in terms of time, space, body and forces. [It’s about looking] into the notion of extreme action and how humans and machines can create something that is spectacular and virtuosic, but also very truly about the human condition. …And it’s a little inspired by slapstick because it’s a non-predictive timing system where you can’t guess what happens next. That’s my goal.”

This process of inquiry is evidenced as dancers “talk walk” through complicated extreme action passes to get the timing exactly right before they actually jump. It can be seen in the way Streb’s company has developed its own archive of sound recordings: “we’ve figured out what sounds occur — not just when dancers are landing, but when they are in the air and you have all these internal organs hitting against each other.” And it is represented by the number of machines Streb’s company has invented that seek to increase the range of motion of a human body through a girding of steel and rope.

Inventing a New Lexicon and a New Industry

Streb recognizes the challenges of inventing something no one has ever seen before. “People don’t notice the [extreme action] movement because there is no nomenclature; a body of knowledge needs things to be named. So what do they look at: bodies. But that is not my subject….This new field will have its day. And it won’t be in the Olympics or sports or dance.”

Streb likens this movement to populist athletic events like Nascar, monster truck rallies, or rodeos. The main challenge is less about pushing out the boundaries of the craft (the sky is the limit) and more about spreading the word.

Streb currently spends much of her time looking for funders who believe in the potential of extreme action. Much of the last five years of her career have been focused on cultivating a financial base to take this discipline to the next level. “It will require enormous marketing. I’m looking for investors that will take 10 years and just invest in it.”

Spreading the word about extreme action almost feels like a calling for Streb. “I feel we have a civic responsibility if it works. If this extreme action is too far ahead of its time to be marketable, then so be it. Maybe the real world doesn’t want this, but I feel they do. And a lot of people who have supported me for years know they do. I know that if I went out into the street and if someone was able to market this like they did with monster truck rallies or the rodeo…that we would really have something.”

“Everyone is an Action Specialist”

What is next for Streb? She is currently promoting her newest show, SEA, described as: “Action Magic, not with rabbits and cards, but with human bodies careening through, around, and above invented hardware.” Her SLAM Action Lab is a hotbed of activity and home to a number of dance companies, classes, events, and programs for youth and adults.

When asked about her dreams for this movement Streb is clear: nothing less than subverting the notion of “art” as something limited to the upper class. Streb would love to see “a bunch of action labs built all over the country”- labs that are funded and flourishing. And “a brilliant marketing campaign to get this into the public sphere. Because I don’t want to be a community center. It is high art… but it doesn’t have to stay there.”

The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.