Holy Cirque du Soleil! Perhaps that best describes the machinations of STREB, the opening act for the Pittsburgh Dance Council season Saturday night. Yes, Batman has nothing on these self-described superheroes who toyed with the urban elements of the set and plunged to the Byham Theater floor with a big splat. No green screen, hidden wires or safety net.
Where Cirque stays within the scenario of the effortless and the surreal (so Magritte), STREB is all about the effort and the risk, with a huge can-do attitude that is essentially American.
Company members would "Fall," "Crush" and make direct "Impact," actual names of a few sections. Some of it made me wince, such as a WWE wrestling match, but the audience vociferously supported the tricks, with many of the landings accented like an action movie score.
Be forewarned -- you couldn't try any of this at home. Despite the fact that "FORCES" often resembled an athletic event rather than a work of art, artistic director Elizabeth Streb has perused the annals of action mechanics in designing her dances, gathering a MacArthur "genius grant," a master of arts degree in humanities and social thought from New York University and a Guggenheim Fellowship along the way.
She calls her style "POPACTION" (Ms. Streb often thinks in capital letters). And while some can revel in the sheer explosiveness of it all, there are other things to discover if you dig a little deeper.
Ms. Streb has visited Pittsburgh several times, and it was obvious at "FORCES" that she had expanded her style over the years, adding more detail and complexity in the timing.
A couple of segments had been seen here before, well, sort of, like the giant rotating tuning fork that was clamped on Jackie Carlson in "Fly." This time around, Ms. Streb added more obstacles from the rest of the company members, although the fork itself took a long time to set up. And while the stagehands (mostly from Pittsburgh, to their credit) were dismantling it, a miniature Roboto took to the mats with a few tricks of his own, although he had trouble maintaining his balance. Cute, but it was unsure whether his falls were a part of the show. The trapped-in-a-box solo remained pretty much the same and still a favorite.
The first half, however, used revolving circles, all dense with mats. If the stunts were hard to begin with, this just complicated things, least of all the dizzying way the action heroes jumped in and out of the circles, like a human kaleidoscope.
For the Dance Alloy, Ms. Streb used a metal wall laced with chains. Now she had a rotating wall, this time of Plexiglas or a similar material. Certainly dance and choreography are all about timing, and these additions ramped it all up, along with the audience's excitement.
There were some new wrinkles that harnessed other things. The back-bend spread eagle from ice skating's legendary comic duo, Frick and Frack, appeared but on dry land.
Like Pilobolus and MOMIX, STREB changed the perception of the human body. Using a full-length screen at the back, which added so much to the course of the evening, including glimpses of the punk-oriented Ms. Streb herself, the choreographer produced "Writhe" where the dancers wiggled along the floor and were projected onto the screen as gravity-defying human pyramids.
It all ended with "Invisible Forces," a rotating wheel that was a smaller version of Cirque du Soleil's "Wheel of Death" in "KA." Equally dangerous for the solo performer, Ms. Streb added her own dazzling twist as would-be Spideys jumped on and off.
That was it. What you saw was mostly what you got -- intelligent comic book heroics with a dash of The Clash. Rock on.theater