Slam! Bang! Wham!
Elizabeth Streb Returns to Jacob's Pillow
By: Jessica Robinson - May 16, 2021
SLAM! BAM! WHAM!
Pop Action choreographer Elizabeth Streb returns to Jacob's Pillow August 18th with the Extreme Action Company.
Elizabeth Streb, the high-octane choreographer known for such risk-taking --and horrifying - feats as setting herself on fire, crashing through glass, and walking down the outside of very tall buildings (London’s City Hall,) returns to the Pillow with the STREB Extreme Action Company for the first time in twenty years.
A MacArthur “Genius” Award-winner, and TED Talk presenter, Streb has been called a thrill-seeker, a Superwoman, a circus performer, even a Houdini (she’s been known to leave a room through the walls.) Many writers and critics call her a dancer. Indeed, once upon a time, in the 1970s, she was a member of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. But categorizing her as a dancer is a mistake-- too conventional, too tied to visual illusion, storytelling, and music.
For her, “movement has its own timing, unrelated to music.” Indeed her work challenges the very definition of dance. While it’s true that dancers leap, Streb’s leaps and jumps are death-defying. Like an acrobat or stunt performer, she courts danger by taking body-breaking risks with seemingly impossible feats. Her quest is to defy gravity…to fly. Maybe it is aerial dancing?
Whether calling her a Pop Action Hero, or an “action-artist,” one thing is certain, Streb flirts with death She has vaulted and slammed her way into the daredevil Hall of Fame.
“Pushing the limitations of the human body,” she explains, “is what action has to be about. You’re doing this artificial thing to a bunch of rich people, you have to scare them a little.” Or a lot. “Risk has to be part of the drama. If death is going through a glass window, how close to that window of no return can I get?” Pretty close, I’d say, when, in 1997, performing a piece called Breakthru in New York’s Joyce Theater, she dove through a sheet of plexiglass.“ I let out a blood-curdling scream,” Streb tells it, remembering the moment as if it were yesterday. “I launched my body and my mind at that glass, punching so hard the glass shattered into the laps of the first three rows of the audience.” Ouch! While the audience was donned with helmets and goggles, I’m sure they were ducking -- maybe fleeing, too.
That was twenty-four years ago.
Streb is seventy-one now and retired from dancing, but her STREB Extreme Action Company continues performing her signature, high-octane, choreographed feats. Under Streb’s tutelage, combining muscle, virtuosity, acrobatics and technical skills, her dancers – or athletic warriors - have no problem looking fear in the face. But then, what would you expect from a troupe that embraces Streb’s credo: “anything too safe is not action?”
Emerging from the pandemic with a new-found appreciation for their past, from August 18th- 22nd, the STREB Extreme Action Company will revisit their roots at Jacob’s Pillow Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage. While the glass-exploding piece, Breakthru, will not be part of the program, audiences can bet their jaws will drop watching this troupe of eight acrobatic aerial dancers – or action heroes - perform gravity-defying feats.
The evening includes a retrospective of Streb’s classic solos from the 1970s and 1980s, early equipment experimentations from the 1990s, and large scale “action machines,” which the company is famously known for.
The STREB Extreme Action Company program will be available to watch online September 2nd-16th.
Jessica Robinson is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Art & Auction Magazine, Art Forum, The Journal of Art, Music Journal Magazine, Metrosource, UX Collective and others. She is a frequent contributor to Berkshire Fine Arts, and is a Guest Editor for OBSzine, an Italian art publication. Robinson divides her time between New York and Paris.