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Elizabeth Streb thinks big. She's not a choreographer, she's an action architect. Her work FORCES, currently appearing in Memorial Hall in a Carolina Performing Arts program, physically translates to the stage concepts of motion. Her dancers, or actioneers, as they have been called, or extreme action heroes as they are often spoken of now, both demonstrate the laws of bodies in motion – and, seemingly, transgress those laws in a series of expositions of human capability.
There are no stories attached to the "action events" that make up a STREB Extreme Action Company program. But all the astonishing feats hover above an invisible river of bodily vulnerability. As at the circus, part of the fearsome thrill for the audience comes from knowing that strength, skill, and will may fail, but in Earth's atmosphere, gravity never does. These action heroes with their powerful, flexible bodies and their machines and contraptions, outwit it for joyous moments, but every flyer must come to ground.
Or crash. In one of the large-scale video intervals between acts, while the riggers work at changing the equipment, Streb appears on screen, talking about her interest in flying – and her even greater interest in crashing – what happens when a body hits a surface at high velocity. Her actioneers are more than ready to show us, in segments titled "Hit" "Crash" and "Fall."
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of a STREB work is the way the actions – stripped of all narrative – arrow directly to primal consciousness. You may start off thinking this is all about thinking, that it is a conceptual art. But to the contrary, like all the greatest art, it short-circuits words (or in this case, equations) to get at things in our psyches that can be known only through physical realities.
There were a great many children in the audience, and generally they were vocally delighted. But a child near me could not watch the actioneers throwing themselves from the rising scaffolding, to hit the (cushioned) stage with a resounding THWAP. I had to fight down an artesian spring of panic during the section titled "Bound," although I was calm during a far more dangerous segment in which the dance athletes dodge and dart around and under a spinning I-beam suspended from the rigging. The point here is that for all its pleasurable excitements, STREB forces a viewer to confront her terrors. If your fear happens to be of flying, you'll clutch yourself during "Fly," but if you felt gypped during the last visit to ADF by Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance, you will feel delight and wonder at this marvel of aerial motion (the dancers' suspension devices descend from big coat hanger shapes emblazoned with the word STREB), and justified in your previous dissatisfaction.
The entire STREB performance experience is a marvelous, unlikely blend of bigtop circus, competitive street dance and high-level lecture, in which the physical presence of the actioneers and their equipment is beautifully augmented with both prepared and real-time video. Generally, the real-time images allow us to see the action from another viewpoint, while the prepared segments include the Streb talks, and fantastic moving imagery such as earth from space. It's all accompanied by blaring music and the introductions and exhortations of the dj/emcee. Amid the chaotic noise and constant movement, the extreme action heroes maintain their life-preserving focus. It's all inspiring – and STREB wants to hear you say so. If you go to the March 19 performance, be prepared to use your stadium voice to say YES to these brave souls who keep reaching for the yet-unknown limits of their bodies.
As noted, STREB's FORCES will be repeated 3/19. For details, see the sidebar.