Bungee dancing from a bridge. Body slamming into a mat. Spiraling down a wall strapped to a harness. It's all in a day's work for STREB, the Brooklyn-based troupe of extreme action artists.
Since 1985, founder Elizabeth Streb, 62, dubbed the Evel Knievel of dance, has pitted performers against extraordinary, gravity-defying feats in pursuit of answers to a key question: "What is the body willing to let happen to it?"
"I think that what inspires me is what is possible," Ms. Streb says. "How far away can a body get from an audience member and still be seen and still matter?"
She tests this by regularly taking STREB to traditional theatrical venues and into wide open, unchartered performance spaces, such as in front of the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island, Vanderbilt Hall at New York's Grand Central Station and the anchorage beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
Next up? Byham Theater, Downtown, Friday and Saturday for the first offering of the Pittsburgh Dance Council's 2012-13 season.
Ms. Streb's appetite for action stems from an interest in deciphering and isolating what makes a real movement and what an audience experiences while watching it.
"I like fast, hard, out-of-control ideas," she says. "It would be similar to creating, in my opinion, a great dramatic line in a theatrical production. ... You just have to turn the page and know what happens."
She conjures up these creations at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (S.L.A.M.), a roomy former warehouse the company has used since January 2003 for inventing new works, rehearsing and holding community classes for children and teens.
An essential part of challenging the body's capabilities is getting it off the ground -- a lot. In other dance genres, such as ballet or modern, "I don't think it's fair that they stay on their feet all of the time except for a couple seconds," she says. "I have a sense that it's mostly a visual and an aural experience. What I wanted to do was to really have it be physical so that the audience felt that these dancers were pulling themselves into their lap."
Despite her critique of ballet, Ms. Streb brings a studied background of it and modern to her work, having graduated from SUNY Brockport with a bachelor of science in modern dance. She also holds a Master of Arts in humanities and social thought from New York University. Her team of "extreme action heroes" also boasts diversified experiences in ballet, modern and gymnastics. Dancers with multiple talents who can think on their feet is essential, Ms. Streb says.
"People get hurt and we have to replace them right in the middle of the show, and other dancers have to figure out how to fill in."
It's been a big year for STREB, with a highlight being a series of stunts staged across London during the Olympics in August. Company members mounted a spinning ladder routine in Trafalgar Square, navigated the spokes of the London Eye Ferris wheel and "walked" down the outside of City Hall.
In Pittsburgh, artists will bring their latest show "STREB: FORCES," about 95 minutes (including an intermission) of acrobatics and athletic maneuvering of equipment, such as a 30-by-30 foot wall and spinning beams and gauges.
"I started collaborating with people who know how to put on a show in the dramatic sense," Ms. Streb says. "I've asked them to interfere in my process once I choreograph and then they come in and edit it and arrange it." She calls the work "a movical," which combines the episodic and entertainment factors of a movie or a musical with high action events.
STREB tends to attract a cross section of ages, Ms. Streb says, and she enjoys it when what is seen on stage motivates audiences to let "their own personal inside action hero come bursting out," such as by kids using their beds as launching pads or jumping on the couch.
"I love that they feel energized in their own bodies," she says, "not because they couldn't do it but because part of it they could do."theater
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published September 27, 2012 4:00 AM