Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
My first encounter with Elizabeth Streb was when a friend brought me to a performance at the Joyce Theater in New York and those of us sitting up close were asked to don helmets and goggles as Streb or one of the dancers in her group dove through a pane of glass, shattering it into our laps. We were more formally introduced when a mutual friend brought me to Thanksgiving dinner in the apartment Streb shares with her longtime partner, Laura Flanders. The scene was chaotic: Streb stirring huge cauldrons of food over a large industrial-grade stove, Streb chopping vegetables Samurai style, practically hurling knives back and forth to others who seemed familiar with this well choreographed whirl. Flames were jumping too high on the stove, loaves of bread were thrown around the room—time flew past, and within the hour a delicious feast was served at a very long table. It was like an elaborate circus act, a magic show of sorts, filled with lots of pratfalls—physical comedy. At some point there was a trick involving eggs—which broke and landed on the floor. Streb loves a good laugh, a random practical joke, to be surprised, caught off guard.
More seriously, Streb is one of the most daring thinkers and performers I have ever known. She’s always expanding the boundaries of what can be done with the body, with physics, with gravity. A cross between Emmett Kelly, Albert Einstein, and Martha Graham, she is inspiring, fluid, and lives to think, deeply and profoundly, about quite literally what makes the world spin. Her new book, How to Become an Extreme Action Hero, is blazingly articulate, brimming with ideas on space, time, and movement, like Batman and Robin gave her the secret code on how to explain all that happens behind KAPOW, SPLAT, and ZOWIE. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2003 she established S.L.A.M. (STREB Lab for Action Mechanics) in Brooklyn, which has an open-door policy; the community is encouraged to watch rehearsals, take classes, and learn to fly. Each week, more than 400 children take classes at Streb’s Brooklyn hub—and “streb” has actually become a verb, used to describe her own brand of “pop action.” As in: What are you doing? Strebbing!
Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome America’s first Pop Action Heroine, Elizabeth Streb.
A.M. Homes You’re described as a choreographer and a dancer, but the philosophical, mathematical, and scientific aspects of what you do aren’t really about dance.
Elizabeth Streb They’re not, no.
AMH So how do you begin to describe them?
ES It’s difficult to describe motion’s “objectness” in words. It is interesting to think about how movement gets perceived and to ask, “What is the experience of being a witness to someone who moves?” There’s an integral problem, a lack of serious vocabulary—certainly for dance writers—that tends to cite what your body is doing, not what’s happening to your body, and therefore, how it affects the audience. For me, the subject is an unnamable thing in terms of what the actual, true function of movement as language could be or what content, motion is capable of holding. Every time you sit down to write, you’ve got to think, How am I going to tell this story in a way that no one’s ever heard before? Similarly, trying to invent action with the body that we inhabit everyday—this hackneyed relationship of body to self and all the embedded clichés lurking there—makes speaking of it even more out of reach than the doing.
Twenty-five years ago I started constructing a series of questions about what I felt to be an unanswered set of principles in the dance world. Time, space, and body forces, when mixed, act as if a chemical explosion has occurred. They could create such extreme movements that, as a watcher, you’d be forced to experience it as a paradigm shift. What I try to create and present on stage as “Extreme Action Events” has defaulted into the field of dance because it’s based in movement.
AMH Tell me what those unanswered questions are for you.
ES The salient questions were initially drawn from my physical experience in the first 17 years of my life; it was pretty extreme. I was interested in motorcycle racing and really interested in machinery, what it could do for the body that the body could not do for itself. I was also incredibly interested in velocity and impact. I thought the magic was with those aspects of physicality, not in what you could gain through access, practice, and the exposition of that privilege. You were so skilled after training your bones, your muscles, your tendons, well, your whole physical structure, that you could let almost anything happen to you, outrageous things. The questions I wondered about were why you spent weeks, months, and years in order to gain rigorous technique, yet never do more on stage than exhibit it.
Another question developed from noticing that music is the true enemy of dance; that just popped out of my mouth when I was in my late twenties. Or noticing that the timing system for sound, and therefore the compositional methods involved, are antithetical to how you would choreograph or assemble one move after another. Movement is causal; it’s a physical happening. You can stick a high C next to a low F-flat, whereas you couldn’t connect a move where you’re 30 feet in the air and falling, then skip a spot in space, land on the ground, and walk away. So I thought the arbiters of dance training and presentation were lying at the first basic step. Dance does not address its compositional methodology. It’s not true to the form. This form is movement. Compositionally they’re working in sound form. The many practitioners of dance would say you have to count when you move to the music. I wasn’t trained in sound. I was majoring in dance. So I didn’t count. I would estimate intervals of sound. I was looking for what would be the iambic pentameter of action if we were going to try to classify it as a canon, as a knowledge-based field that had a nomenclature and defined names to the timings of iconic movement phrases. What variations make people burst into tears because they are so neurologically affected? What would be the allegory for movement? I wanted viewers—and experts—to know exactly what pure, physical rhythm was. To do that, you have to invent a new way to choreograph.
Another question might be why so much effort is spent camouflaging gravity. Why spend so much time on one surface of the body, the bottoms of the feet? Why enact movement only by the transfer of weight from one foot to another? Why not switch your basic support and enlarge it? Why not harness invisible forces? Why not try not to occupy the same space at the same time? Why do you have to choose a direction? Can’t you move in more directions at the same time? I started by whittling away at what would happen if the body stayed in a straight line like a piece of plywood and fell backward. Wouldn’t you spread out the impact? But it’s very hard to make yourself do that. So I would just do it, hurt myself, and try again without hurting myself. I started discovering things that in my gut I knew were true. And I knew that people watching me wouldn’t recognize it.
AMH Why wouldn’t they recognize it?
ES Perhaps because the moves seemed absurdist and slapstick, not recognizable as an aesthetic possibility. It was ugly. I started to corral or outline a grubby, grunty aspect of physicality. What would a purely physical kind of grace look like? It wouldn’t look like a ballet dancer’s grace.
AMH It’s hard for people to process something that they don’t know how to name, or that isn’t part of a familiar “system.”
ES Absolutely, and who knows if it ever will be. Let’s say you’re a body-centric watcher of movement, which most people are. You know how normal modern dance works; all this movement with their arms and legs. They’re flinging them all over the damn place and they think that’s variation. The timing of my spatial trajectories is unbelievably complex. I’ve ordained a vertical surface as another place to be besides the ground. I’ve done a number of vertical surface dances. I’ve reinvented the floor in a perfectly different fashion and tried to occupy it. Well, I did this long after my hero, Trisha Brown, did it. In the grammar of writing, if syntax didn’t matter, if you didn’t identify the verb and the subject, then how would you construct a sentence that had any meaning? What holds content in movement? I think that question has not been answered yet, regarding movement as a phenomenon.
AMH I want to ask you about the relationship of circus to your work and the relationship of class to the way things are viewed.
ES As a linguist, Noam Chomsky had this phrase, “Colorless, green ideas sleep furiously,” with which he disavowed the belief that you can put together any verb-phrase and any noun-phrase and have meaning. I’m a practitioner, not a scholar, but in the dance world we still have to figure out what the verbs and the predicates of movement are so that when you put them together, something happens if there’s meaning in the movement. It’s quite possible that the “meaning” is in the “experience” it provides. It’s a phenomenological problem, a kinesthetic thing that makes you feel like you’ve just been twirled around even though you’re just watching. Our job at STREB EXTREME ACTION is to change your place in space in some radical way. People think that we’re wild and crazy and dangerous. But I’m getting their non-predictive attention through physical means.
AMH I’m smiling because I’m thinking of times when I’ve been sitting in your audience thinking, Should I duck now?
ES Right, (laughter) that kind of thing. It’s easy for the dance world to dismiss it as circusy and tricky. I’ve decided that the gymnastic vocabulary, which is really just taking the large muscle groups and snapping them fast and furiously so that you go into the air, is very much like a frappé in the petit allegro, but that occurs with much smaller muscle groups. It’s clear that you can do that with a small part of your body, such as the foot, but not that you can do it with your glutes and quads. I would challenge modern dance to find a more profound move than the flip. It’s not a trick; it’s an outrageous thing that the human body can do. Listen to the audience when people flip. It’s hard to get more profound than the flip. It’s not that I don’t appreciate my colleagues and what they do, but I don’t feel that their concerns are my concerns. I disagree with a lot of their choices, theoretically and philosophically. And I feel that the principles of action are not being contended with.
AMH You talk about invisible forces. I would love to hear about that.
ES Modern dance spends an enormous amount of time and effort ignoring gravity. They rarely fall. When they fall, they don’t fall. They carefully let themselves down. I’m thinking, You’re a bunch of sissies. Lisa Randall is a physicist from Harvard working in superstring theory and particle physics. If you believe in the fundamental structure of our world as adhering to superstring theory, everything is made up of little strings, not particles and waves like we used to think. It posits that there are probably 11 dimensions; what that posits is that there are probably parallel universes. She asks why gravity is weaker than the other known forces: strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism.
AMH What are strong and weak nuclear forces?
ES I don’t think I can explain that.
AMH Come on! (laughter) The quick version; are we talking a reactor here?
ES I’ll get back to you on that. Maybe the strong force is what holds quarks together, which are the substructures of protons and electrons inside atoms. But subatomically there are four known forces. And Lisa Randall’s breakthrough is—I’m foolishly simplifying this—to ask why gravity is so weak. I think people’s body of work is conjugated by what they wonder about. And then she thought, “Maybe gravity is leaking out to other universes.” Now she thinks maybe it’s leaking in. And then she does the calculations and starts a revolution.
It doesn’t occur to anyone to ask questions of what seems unquestionably true. A question like: Can you fall up? This is the bedrock of my process, this way of attempting to notice what questions have not been asked in a particular field that need to be asked and answered. It’s like noticing the crevice between a moment and an instant. Gravity is the most dramatic force we have access to as humans in a Newtonian, right-side-up world. That’s where the action’s drama is. That’s where the rhythms potentially might lie, even though we haven’t named them. Of course, if you don’t commit to naming something, you can’t recognize it. And we might respond to these rhythms as physical beings. I think on the cellular or molecular level, the gasp-inducing moment I yearn to create comes from a potentially profound timing structure or a purely physical rhythm. If you were to see a steel I-beam smacking someone’s head you would cringe. But if this is a steel I-beam, and this is a person…(uses table objects to demonstrate) Look at all that space! What if you only go back as much as you have to not to get hit? Then you start to see how profoundly complex the space occupied is. The audience is gasping because they’re measuring the manner in which the person can or cannot get out of the way. That’s not about getting smacked by an I-beam, it’s about what we sense is true concerning the spatial/temporal condition we are all forced into. If you present the shocking truth of the physical, then, eureka! But of course that’s what people see. I’m this person that has all these ugly children—
AMH Who are the ugly children? The ideas?
ES My work. I smack and slap. But I am very happy with the respect I garner from the dance world. They do pay attention to my work.
AMH I don’t know any other choreographer who thinks and talks about their work in the ways you do—relating to math, physics, gravity.
ES Something like π is unbelievably profound and, of course, necessarily true. The circumference of a circle is 2πr. In movement, turning circles are everywhere. When you see B-boys, really fast breakdancing kids, their turning radius gets smaller and smaller, just like the Chinese MiG pilots in World War II. You couldn’t shoot them down because they figured out how to turn so tightly, so quickly, so unpredictably. They were dealing with severe G-forces that no one thought could be dealt with. It’s the difference between doing one turn on a circle with a 100-foot radius or doing 100 turns on a circle with a one-foot radius. The measurement 2πr of a 20-foot circle is 60 feet, whereas a minute ago, if it were square, I’d only have 20 feet.
Another odd habit of dance is their use of the “wings” on either side of a stage. Dancers run across the stage, but they know the wings are at its edge so they have to slow down and stop, turn around and run the other way. They never achieve velocity or speed because they’re stopping all the time, switching directions by 180 degrees. What if you figure out what the perfect turning radius is for a human body? Do you know about the wire circus circles, 22 feet?
AMH Tell me what you’re talking about.
ES This is so beautiful. What’s a perfect arc? What tools would a choreographer use to assess what is perfect proportionality onstage with the human form? It has to be functional as well. If you run in a circle with a diameter of eight feet, your run gets mitigated. You won’t be able to see the run.
AMH Do any other choreographers talk or think about this?
ES They’re not trying to go fast, they’re still choreographing to music. I can’t help them. There’s so much to be discovered. I’m action, not dance. But the circus decided—and this is what I want dance to decide, and I don’t know that it will—that their diameter is 22 feet because that’s how wide the circle has to be for a horse to go fast enough for a person to stand up on it. Oh my God, I thought, when I first heard that.
AMH How did they calculate it?
ES Trial and error. They kept falling off. They have to reach a canter, because if it’s a trot—
AMH I know why! The motion of the horse’s legs in cantering is less bouncy than the trot.
ES Yes! But if the damn horse world has figured this out, and they’ve named the rhythm, imagine how many moves we could name if we just started naming them?
AMH We have. We have the saunter, the stumble, the stagger…
ES (laughter) That’s very good.
AMH I know you’re interested in flight. I think about falling as the attempt to fly that fails. You get a little bit of the gift of it. And then you have the oops—the inevitable.
ES We humans would call it the punishment, that abrupt return to earth, the hit. But we could also say that the failure of flight is the inevitability of the intersection with the ground. NASA euphemizes everything. They define a crash as the unplanned intersection of the vertical with the horizontal. When I started trying to ordain what human flight without an assisting vehicle such as an airplane would look like, I was aware that a large part of it would be coming down because parabolic flight is inevitable.
AMH I just realized that it leads to the invention of the hardware. Is there a reverse parachute, something that could come up and catch you as you’re coming down? Something that would inflate upward?
ES That’s a really cool idea, actually.
AMH Almost like a crash bag. Something you deploy that’s very fast. An explosive device deploys the airbags in cars. That’s why there’s smoke and also, apparently, it’s like getting punched. Once the airbag deploys, you almost always have to go to the hospital.
ES We were interested in air foil. They use those in movies where it ejects, but they are extremely dangerous. For the body to respond to something coming at it and to go in the opposite direction is part of the problem. Do you know the sound of an elephant’s trunk smacking the ground when they’re mad?
AMH They make a very thunky thunk.
ES (laughter) Thunky thunk. There are certain sounds that are just wrong in human consciousness. Like the sound of a full-weighted human body hitting the ground. Historically, something bad has probably happened when you hear that. But we at STREB EXTREME ACTION try to have that be a part of our drama. We enlarge that effect. Now if you stopped flight…One time a mathematician at Stanford, Leon Henkins, challenged me. A few years ago I asked him to give me some impossible problems. He said, “Perform discontinuity.” The idea was to skip a spot in space, like an asymptote, where all of a sudden there’s no value there. You don’t know why. What’s the physical condition at that spot in space? You’d be falling, then you’d disappear, then you’d continue to fall a bit further on.
AMH How to take someone out of time?
ES Just to disappear. That’s what it would be. We’ve also worked with people at the Media Lab at MIT. This one group for instance has a winch; I’m forever looking for the fastest, smallest, most efficient winch. Now that would be a way to disappear. This winch will lift you ten feet per second. Let’s say a normal proscenium is 30 feet high; in three seconds you’re gone. That’s disappearing!
Asking particular questions about movement is the most any artist can do. It’s not the pieces themselves that matter. Who cares if it’s a masterpiece? It concerns the answer to the question of whether this is a sufficiently rich or deep enough point of view that it will provoke other people when they come long after I’m gone to continue this investigation. Hopefully, it’s an oral history and the name Streb isn’t the critical part.
AMH Going back a second to the hardware…
ES I’m a hardware junkie.
AMH Have you fantasized over some item or way of using enhancements that you still hope to do, or is there something that you worked really hard on and thought, This is a total failure? Like the Wright brothers.
ES Failing is important. The Wright brothers knew that the main problem to be solved about flight was the issue of equilibrium. Not anything else. They calculated the weight contingent between the human body and the machine with Bernoulli’s principle and the air foil principle. They had figured out how to lift off the earth, but everything they knew about equilibrium and how to design the wings’ shape was not working in practice at Kitty Hawk. Somehow they realized that this weird coefficient called Smeaton’s Coefficient of Air Pressure was incorrect. It had been in use for 150 years.
AMH How did they find that out?
ES They thought something had to be wrong in their mathematical equations and that it must be that coefficient. They made a model of the wind tunnel and tested it out, and they were right. My machinery is pretty primitive, most of it. I’m careful about making more extravagant machines because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to build them, and then I’m forced to make a dance from them. I usually draw sketches of them for years before I understand what might happen. Even though I think I know what might happen with them once I get them in the space, never the twain shall meet. What I think I know about movement is constantly defied by what the machinery and the dancers reveal to me in practice and by the reality of space, time, and forces. But I’ve been exercising my activity, my questions, in terms of my new work. What would be a move that no one has ever seen or done before? Of course, an infinite number of moves haven’t been done before, and some wouldn’t matter. What would be the most effective impossible move? I don’t know. Maybe it’s within the forces that you mentioned. Besides gravity there’s adhesion, impact, rebound, centripetal force, friction…
AMH Would you ever be interested in trying something with objects and not people? Why not create a dance at some point that has no dancers?
ES We’re really getting into robotics, especially since I’ve had…
AMH No health insurance (laughter). You could have a satellite program, no pun intended: a “spinoff.” Let’s jump to another subject. Do you think that artists, dancers, whatever, have a moral mandate? (In a mock pretentious voice) What’s the artist’s role in society, Elizabeth? (laughter)
ES If you had asked me this ten years ago, prior to S.L.A.M., I would have said no. But now I think yes. As an artist, I believe I do have a civic responsibility and luckily, at this point in my career, I’m working at trying to figure how this should manifest itself. I’m not as interested in my career as I was before I accomplished the things I felt I had to accomplish. I have a portal now into what civic responsibility could look like: building a home, an International Action Factory, from the ground up, from a viral Petri dish-type of functioning model, rather than this top-down thing in the art world, using the device of attraction, not promotion. By word of mouth and a process of grabbing the attention of two minds at a time, we have developed the landscape that demonstrates a proposition for the arts in the United States and how it could provoke the everyday person to realize that the exercise of some type of culture makes their life better. In a small-scale way, my medium is movement and I think it brings joy to people. Watch kids. You can tell.
AMH Your work with kids is pretty amazing.
ES It started in North Philly in the early ’90s. I watched a kid slam into a wall, a less than privileged kid. I was like, None of my dancers will hit the wall like that, but I will because I’m coming from the same “you’ve got nothing left to lose” place. That’s how those people hit the wall.
AMH The Janis Joplin School of Dance.
ES I realized that we grow more and more toward stillness as adults. We become observers rather than doers. And kids are just madly involved in physicality. Movement is a radical form of physical existence. It upsets people. And, of course, it’s what existence is all about. I find that it is embedded and embodied in children, and I want that as part of my laboratorial observation. I don’t meddle with them. I basically just watch them and steal their moves. I get infused with their energies. S.L.A.M. does a nonpunitive teaching thing. We employ a very interesting pedagogy, and it’s all trial and error in terms of what we feel is effective in accomplishing and inventing motion because the kids invent it as much as they learn it. Kids, machines, and action are my three most inspiring phenomena…and the circus.
AMH You’ve got how many kids coming to the S.L.A.M. lab at this point?
ES In a week, between 300 and 400 kids. From all over the city. It’s really wild. When they find out my name is Streb they act confused, because “streb” is what they do: it’s a verb. It’s very cool.
AMH I told you before, when my daughter Juliet was really little, she ran and slammed into the wall. I said, “What are you doing?” And she said, “Elizabeth!”
ES (laughter) Honest to God? How did she know?
AMH She had seen the piece where the person slams into the wall! I couldn’t run like that—I’d put my brakes on.
ES You do have to unravel your sensibility about what’s reasonable. Many of my dancers will slow down a little, but you’re aiming your base—this rectangle formed from the top of your knees to the top of your pectoral muscles. Even though it’s vertical, it’s what’s going to make contact with the surface that is not going to move. So how do you economize your own conservatism about not doing undue harm to yourself? Really, the issue is giving up the preciousness of the container you happen to live in. I’m getting at the whole anti-intellectual aspect of motion. It’s hard now that I’m not doing it anymore—it’s been 12 years. It’s maddening to figure out how to pass it on, because if I’m willing to rip my body apart, which I was, how do you say, You’re really a wuss. You’re probably from an upper class, and you’re worried about yourself. You can’t say that. I’m trying to learn how.
AMH Why did you stop?
ES Well, I was 48. I stopped because that started to become the subject of my activity. I started to hear, Wow, you can still do that and you’re 48? It was a practical decision—three hours a day to keep in that shape? Because if you don’t do that, you just can’t do that. I had been training for 30 years. It’s very boring to exercise. I stopped. I let it go, which was a good thing. I still let extreme things happen to me. I have this idea about something I want to call Niagara: 1,000 gallons of water weighing 1,000 pounds. Actually, 1,000 gallons of water would weigh 8,000 pounds!
AMH In the book you talk about the final moments of life as essentially turning to dust. As though you would have used up everything and all that would remain would be dust.
ES Pure efficiency. Done.
AMH Is that the definition of expiration, that we spontaneously combust?
ES (laughter) I don’t know, dust-to-dust? I would love that.
AMH You could work on that.
ES It’s hard to practice. You can’t really do it twice.
AMH You almost do it setting yourself on fire.
ES What was so weird is that I thought it would be a wonderful thing to be on fire. The empowering agent of that is…
AMH I like the line that you wrote about the next day. “I can do anything today. I was on fire yesterday.” Did you attempt to walk on fire?
ES I was going to land on it and put out the fire. That’s what I was going to do.
AMH Instead, you actually lit your ass on fire.
ES I was stupid. You would think I would learn, but then we did it again last year. Not me, but one of my dancers.
AMH The piece you did at the Joyce Theater where you jumped through glass, did you do that again?
ES Did I personally? We did it again. That was an experience. I don’t know how I got the idea to dive through glass. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. I remember being upstage in a crouch, and it was a benefit, so all the fancy people in my field were there. They saw a frame come down, and they couldn’t see the glass. They thought I was about to do a modern dance with the frame. I was upstage thinking, That is exactly the essence. The idea of busting through glass. Two seconds. All these too-long dances are beating around the bush.
AMH How does that fit with Chris Burden’s work, like having himself shot, or other things that are outside of dance and in performance art.
ES Or Marina Abramovic.
AMH Yeah, absolutely. I remember Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh. I saw that piece where they were tied together for a year.
ES Did you see them walking around? Were you here then?
AMH At Sarah Lawrence, a former student had curated a series on performance art; Spalding Gray, Carolee Schneemann, Linda Montano. It was this incredible education to bring in all these performance artists.
ES I feel very close to all those people, the extreme ones. They are the ones I’m probably more associated with than modern dance people, except for Trisha Brown, that is. Chris Burden? I’m completely obsessed with him. In fact, I’d like to get shot. How would I make that different than what he did? I’d find a channel through the body with no tender organs or pipe-work and let the bullet tunnel all the way through, then take a string through there and tie it around…(laughter)
—A.M. Homes is the author of nine books, most recently the memoir The Mistress’s Daughter, and the novel This Book Will Save Your Life. She enjoys collaborating with artists such as Bill Owens, Catherine Opie, Carroll Dunham, Rachel Whiteread, and Eric Fischl, and is currently working on a short story for Petah Coyne’s upcoming exhibition at MASS MoCA.