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Pop, Slam, Action!

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb Hits the Wall, Then Pushes Beyond in Her Latest Work That's Part Homage, Stunt and Impulsive Wild Act


When dancers bound from trampolines, slam into walls and onto floor mats, and fly in the air connected to body harnesses and cantilevered counterweights, can you still define it as dancing?

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb felt she needed to invent a term to describe this movement style, which she's been exploring for about 20 years. She calls it "pop action."

But it's not new, she says in her newest work, "Action Heroes," at the Irvine Barclay Theatre this weekend.

It has antecedents in acts by escapist magician Harry Houdini, and stunt artists such as Cannonball Richard (who caught cannonballs in his gut), Annie Edson Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive) and Evel Knievel (the motorcycle daredevil).

Her latest work honors them all with, of course, a special Streb touch.

"I'm heralding their movements, saying, 'Action doesn't get much better than this,' " Streb said in a recent phone interview from Green Bay, Wis., where her company was performing before the Irvine date.

"I want to say, 'Look at all these people who did all these exciting things that excited the masses.' "

The new 70-minute show consists of 25 "action events," some paralleling the acts of these and other earlier stuntmen, some pure Streb.

"Some are what I would call a series of singularities or single-movement movements. Sometimes they just serve as physical emblems and exist as homage to earlier action heroes," she said.

"Whereas in my earlier work, I was trying to create a physical event that gives the audience a physical experience, now I am trying to contextualize the idea and pay certain backward citings wherever I think these movements came from.

"These impulses may be similar to mine--the insurgent impulse to do the wild act, the useless move, and survive."

Why 25 events?

"I'm working along the line that more is better, rather than less is more."

One piece, called "Writhe," for instance, juxtaposes the movements of a Streb dancer suspended by her feet against projected historical footage of Houdini struggling to escape from a straitjacket while he was suspended from his heels.

"When I thought of it," Streb said, "I thought, 'That's not going to work theatrically.' But a body writhing in space has so many far-ranging implications in history, not just in dance."

Another sequence wittily re-creates the synchronized swimming-pool ballets of Esther Williams, but without the water and at a skewed angle.

In all of this, there's a continuity with Streb's earlier work and her effort "to establish what is an effective movement moment and how to stage it," she said.

"My belief, which is a little arrogant to say, is that dance as a field has not solved that puzzle or even posed the questions properly.

"I have some answers, and some dangling participles. I have never felt that I've made the perfect show yet. But I'm happier with this one than any of the others. It asks more accurate questions."

But there are two new elements. One is the use of visual images, such as the Houdini escape act or shots of Niagara Falls. The other is the incorporation of music.

"For years and years, I've thought that music is the enemy of dance," Streb said. "That's because music has a different timing code and also a different affectivity. But I feel the brutality of the work needs a rest theatrically."

Brutal is a good description of her movement style, which turns out to be as risky as it looks.

"Don't try it at home," Streb warned. "It looks slapdash, but it is a technique. The intensity of the physical actions hasn't lessened. If anything, we go harder, higher and faster than we did last year.

"But the more formal our technique gets developed, the safer we are. It requires a huge amount of practice."

It's not just physical injury the performers risk.

"The effect of it causes a certain amount of trauma," Streb said. "Sometimes it's exhilaration when you hit the wall just right. Sometimes it just hurts. This is definitely facing your demons on a daily basis.

"Sometimes for each of the eight performers, there's a spot when your heart stops and you experience a fear and a fear of the unknown. The nature of the work is filled with turbulence--turbulence you can't be sure to negotiate."

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at


"Streb: Action Heroes" will be presented Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Friday and Saturday: $30-$35. (Half-price for students, subject to availability.) On Sunday: $15, children and students; $30, adults. (949) 854-4646.

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