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One Human Being at a Time: A Visit to Elizabeth Streb’s S.L.A.M.

As residents of the modern world, we are all accustomed to dealing with a fair amount of inhumane bullshit. The blessing of living like this is how brilliantly the exceptions shine through, when they come along.

A STREB rehearsal at S.L.A.M. in Williamsburg
A STREB rehearsal at S.L.A.M. in Williamsburg

For example, the dance world tends to face the rest of humanity with a somewhat holier-than-thou mask, from the legend of the demanding prima ballerina to the admonishing reminder to take your shoes off in the studio. And to some extent, fair play. Dancers have long been underappreciated artists and athletes, so this development of elitism through marginalization is understandable. However, it is certainly not the only tack to take, and the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (S.L.A.M.) is living proof that dance without an axe to grind—dance that is warm and welcoming and deeply communal—can still be great dance.

S.L.A.M. is the warehouse home of the modern dance company STREB, founded in the late 1970s by Artistic Director Elizabeth Streb. The company specializes in PopAction, a style Streb describes as “a mixture of slam dancing, exquisite and amazing human flight, and wild action sport.” STREB posts their rehearsal schedule on their website and proclaims: “Come in and watch the process as it unfolds and if you have a great idea let us know.  STREB believes that the cross section of activity in our space feeds the creativity.  Bring lunch and use our WiFi!” Cool, I thought. But how will this work? 

On a cold November afternoon, I rang the bell outside the former mustard seed factory and entered STREB’s multi-purpose “urban barn” – a cavernous concrete room outfitted by the group in 2003 for rehearsals, performances, and movement classes for children and adults (including a Trapeze Academy). Two living room-sized mats, red and green, sat in the middle of the painted plywood floor, bright flood lights hung high above, and the Whizzing Gizmo, a bright yellow contraption resembling a giant hamster wheel, towered at the back. Folding metal chairs meant for visitors lined the aisles around the two big mats; I took a seat ringside to an aerial dance class just wrapping up on the red one. The dancers nodded nonchalantly when they noticed me, giving the impression that finding a stranger watching from the sidelines is indeed a daily occurrence here.

When the aerial group finished, the center of attention became the eight dancers on the green mat, who stood in a circle on an inset rotating platform—the “Streb Square.” In the center of the Square was a 5×10' transparent pane of Plexiglas, framed with metal tubing and anchored by four taut cables. The dancers, a robust mix of genders, ethnicities, and body types, and dressed in rag-tag spandex shorts and hooded sweatshirts, ran up in succession to take various shots at the pane as the platform turned: leaping and grabbing the top metal edge before vaulting back down; running nearly past the pane but striking out to hit it with the palm of a hand or sole of a foot before twisting away; plowing chest-first into it with arms and legs outstretched, star-like. The group laughed and joked with each other as they went, cheering successful combinations and sharing sympathetic sighs after false steps. (I would later hear STREB’s two cardinal rules of conduct: never be rude and never be late.) Throughout, Elizabeth Streb—instantly recognizable by her short, spiky faux-hawk and chunky black glasses—stood just off the mat, sometimes dictating a move, sometimes asking a dancer’s opinion, sometimes just watching closely and saying in response: “Beautiful.”

When the company broke for lunch, I asked Ms. Streb if she could talk with me for a few minutes about her company, their upcoming show Invisible Forces, and the S.L.A.M. space. She graciously pulled two chairs up to a nearby folding table covered in mini DV tapes, her colorfully marked up sketchbooks, and a printout of a Wikipedia article titled “Artificial Gravity.”

Streb, now 58, has produced more than seventy dances, toured the world, collaborated with scores of artists across genres, and received a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” Guggenheim Fellowship, two Bessie Awards, and over twenty years of support from the NEA, among other plaudits. Yet her open and unassuming demeanor is the sheerest expression of her commitment to her craft. “If you leave the stuff of life at the door,” she said of S.L.A.M.’s super-accessible model, “how are you going to move authentically? This open format keeps you honest. You’re constantly having to ask: ‘Is what I’m doing important? Is it worthy?’ ” She spoke easily and pleasurably about her work, only distracted when some of her dancers began to improvise during their break and she excused herself to watch and comment.

Streb retired from performing with the company in 1998, describing the transition from dancer to director as “very natural, not sentimental,” due largely to her belief that she makes a better “action stenographer” than performer. It is apparent, hearing her deftly explain her theories and terms, how she might have eventually wished to move on from the broken bones, torn cartilage, and knee surgery of her performance career to focus on the ideas behind the work. “I have always been interested in enriching the language of human motion,” she said, “which was the basis of modern dance, in a lot of ways. But I thought modern dance needed to get off its feet.”

Soon the rest of the company began to file back in for the last portion of the rehearsal, a segment involving synchronized cartwheels by dancers suspended ten feet in the air on rotating harnesses. Along with them, parents and preschoolers began to arrive to have a look around before their afternoon KidAction class, the toddlers occasionally breaking for a tumble on one of the mats. The scene called to mind a comment Streb had made about the process of acquiring the S.L.A.M. space, painstakingly and thoughtfully, over the span of several years: “It was very organic. Just one human being at a time.”

STREB will present Invisible Forces at S.L.A.M. from December 5 – 21.


April Greene

April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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