Choreographer Elizabeth Streb is fascinated with the forms and varieties of human movement

February 9, 2010

Movement without meaning


Broad Street Review

February 9, 2010

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb is fascinated with the forms and varieties of human movement. The main movement interesting her these days, apparently, is the belly flop. The performers in her troupe, STREB, throw themselves— full force, without flinching— onto the floor, against a Plexiglas panel, into each other. The thudding and caroming takes a while for the audience to make sense of.

The first reaction, naturally, is: “Dang, that has got to hurt.” (I noticed that all four women were quite small-breasted; my male companion, on the other hand, was more concerned that the four men had sufficient groin protection.) It takes many repetitions to get past the shock of the collisions and begin to notice the brief moment of flight that occurs between the leap and the landing. The full-body flight looks fundamentally different from the relatively hedged bet of a traditional jeté.


The title of evening’s performance, Brave, thus evokes the fearlessness that Streb requires of her performers (whom she calls, in a peculiarly Disneyesque turn of phrase, “actioneers”). The title also evokes the reaction that she hopes to evoke from the audience, though I suspect she’d prefer stomps and whistles to anything so old-fashioned as a “brava!

The individual “action events” (not “dances”) of Brave are experiments in creating and avoiding collisions. Not all of the “events” are equally successful. In “Polar Wander,” the performers spin a large free-swinging I-beam and then avoid getting hit by it. This is far more interesting for them than it is for the audience.

In the most successful “events,” however, the individual movements transcend mere daredevil trickery and become part of a larger pattern of movement that can be quite hypnotic. In “Artificial Gravity,” the performers deal with the spinning of two concentric circular platforms, moving at different speeds and sometimes in different directions. The performers move on and off these circles, working with and against the centrifugal force created. Video of the action, shot from above, is projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. The rhythmic patterns of the movement take on a reality separate from the bodies that create them, giving the piece an abstract feel in which the personhood of the performers dissolves.

Abstract patterns

This abstraction is also found in the evening’s grand finale, “Super Position,” which involves a Whizzing Gizmo designed specifically for STREB. The Gizmo has a rotating wheel at one end and a counterbalanced tower at the other, with the whole thing rotating around a central axle in response to the movement and weight placement of the performers. For the viewer, an exhilarating sense of sheer fun alternates with a more meditative perception of the abstract patterns of movement that result.

For Streb — and for the high school kids in the balcony of the performance I attended — it seems that movement is, in and of itself, sufficiently interesting to serve as an evening’s entertainment. For others, “art” requires additional meaning (narrative, emotion, ideas) beyond pure spectacle. These people will find themselves, like me, intrigued but ultimately dissatisfied by what STREB has to offer.