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November 2004

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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 3, 2004
Category: profile

One Concrete Block at a Time: Elizabeth Streb

By Rachel Straus

In a garage space at the eastern edge of Brooklyn, six adults dodge two swinging cement blocks. As the pigeons in the garage’s rafters stay put, the dancers below scatter like a flock of birds each time the flying slabs come their way. A dancer dives – under a 30-pound block that sweeps 12 inches from the floor – and rolls sideways like a motorized wheel.

Elizabeth Streb says, “That’s beautiful.”

That’s “Gauntlet,” the 15-minute work commissioned for this week’s Jazz at Lincoln Center presentation, “Jazz in Motion,” part of the organization’s grand opening festival. Also on the ticket will be works by tap dancer Savion Glover, New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins, and modern dance choreographer Garth Fagan – all to the music of Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s artistic director.

No music plays as the STREB dancers rehearse; this lack of instrumental sound is the norm in Ms. Streb’s rehearsals. Though the company will perform for a music-loving audience next week to jazz music, the 54-yearold Ms. Streb had two things to say about the art form: “Jazz, it’s not my thing, man” and “The true enemy of dance is music.”

Collaborations between choreographers and composers – think Balanchine and Stravinsky – generally involve a process where the musical ideas lead and eventually structure the dance. “Elizabeth’s philosophical belief,” said associate artistic director Terry Dean Bartlett, “is that action should be choreographed on its own terms and not based on a rhythmic structure that is forced upon it.” In other words, making movement to any music is out.

In his position as Ms. Streb’s composer, percussionist Joe Chambers said that he finds himself in a “challenging” situation. “I’ve done work with choreographers before,” said Mr. Chambers “but nothing like Streb.”

Not seeking collaboration with Ms. Streb, Mr. Chambers was paired with the Mohawked, MacArthur-award-winning “genius” by Brice Rosenbloom, a cultural programmer who no longer works for Lincoln Center. At their first meeting, Ms. Streb said to Mr. Chambers that she couldn’t and wouldn’t dance to his metered percussion. Mr. Chambers accepted this position, gracefully. He also perceived that her attitude would give him an opportunity to expand as an artist. “I appreciate Elizabeth’s work,” said Mr. Chambers, “because I’m being pulled out of the jazz box.”

Last March when Chambers first watched STREB dancers go through their signature movements – flying through the air from a trampoline, smashing their bodies against sugar glass – in ways beyond what seems physically possible, he said that it inspired him to think differently about his music. Watching her work, he said, he didn’t hear a pulsated rhythm; he heard a combination of electronica mixed with musique concrete and percussion.

In Ms. Streb’s “Gauntlet,” the action of six dancers moving acrobatically to different speeds of the swooping cement blocks creates a virtual rhythm. The affect is both hypnotic and jarring, especially when one of the 30-pound objects swings directly toward a dancer’s head.

“The first time I got hit,” said 8-year company veteran Terry Dean Bartlett, “it pretty much pinned me to the ground and scraped up my arm.”The next time “was a little bit more intense. We stopped rehearsing for the day, as I was bleeding,” said Mr. Bartlett. Showing no self-pity, he then analyzed the accident like a professional stuntman: “I just misjudged and I wasn’t paying close enough attention and I wasn’t fast enough.”

“When you dampen the fear mechanism,” he said, “you have some brilliant moments.”

Mr. Chambers’s improvised and electronic-based score, “Pit and the Pendulum,” begins with a 10-minute introductory segment. This overture features the musicians without the dancers. Then, according to synthesizer player Emmanuel Ruffler, he and four other musicians under Mr. Chambers’s direction playing acoustic bass, flute, saxophone, and percussion instruments, will “try to catch what the dancers are doing.”

Mr. Chambers’s and Ms. Streb’s finished work will provide the music and dance world with a prime example of collaboration at its most challenging. In a segment called “Bevel Center Dive,” STREB dancers will face severe challenges as they spring into freeze-frame jumps where their bodies are both aligned with the height of the swinging blocks and in perfect horizontality with the floor five-feet below them – a “Matrix” moment. Then, a split second before the blocks come careening toward them, the dancers hit the floor – face first.

Ms. Streb’s penchant for devising violent scenarios fosters hypotheses from critics and audience members that her work must relate to current events. “My mind has nothing to do with that,” countered Ms. Streb, who added, “I don’t address headlines. I just go inside and think about how powerful action is in our lives.”

The New York Sun

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC

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