“Can we fly? Can two bodies occupy the same space at the same time?”
These are the questions Elizabeth Streb asks her dancers to research at the Streb Action Intervention Lab (SLAM), her Williamsburg, Brooklyn base. Whether falling from a 30-foot platform to land flat on their stomachs or negotiating amusement park-like machines that test human movement potential, there’s good reason that STREB Extreme Action Company members are called Action Heroes.
NYC ARTS spoke with Fabio Tavares, the company’s associate artistic director, who has been performing with STREB for eight years.
Q: In “Ascension,” commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, dancers negotiate a rotating ladder. It sounds like an action film of an M. C. Escher drawing. What is it like to execute the piece?
A: It’s fun, but everyone’s hands went out the window. Blisters, calluses — our hands ripped. It’s somewhat of a gentler piece. There isn’t any impact — it’s mostly upper body stuff. The ladder is so unpredictable and has a lot to do with counterweight and timing. Depending on where your weight is, it will fall forward or backward. My friends were terrified when they watched it but agreed it’s perhaps one of Streb’s most beautiful pieces ever… lyricism, bodies dangling in the air and flying.
Q: In “Human Fountain,” a River To River festival commission, performers fall/dive off of platforms of different heights onto mats — the highest platform is 30 feet. At what point does the body feel a difference in the fall’s impact?
A: I tell people, if they can fall from 4 feet, they can do it from 40. If they know their bodies well enough from the moment they leave the platform to the moment they land, the technique is the same. Emotion and psychology have a lot to do with it. But we’re landing on 16 or 20 inches of mat.
Q: Are there some moves the audience perceives much differently than you intended? I’m thinking of dance moves that are easy and win applause versus ones that are extremely difficult and go unappreciated.
A: Everyone wants to be in the bungee piece “Kiss the Air” because it looks like so much fun. In fact, it is one of the hardest pieces to endure. The harness hurts your hips, your ribs, it prevents you from breathing, it squeezes your organs; it torques you and makes you want to vomit. It looks bouncy and light and the performers do it so well and it’s one of the most deceiving things I’ve ever seen. It’s a four or five-minute quartet. It’s grueling.
Q: What makes a good Action Hero?
A: A good Action Hero has a flexible mind and good joints.
Q: Has your own technique and approach been perfected, or does it evolve with your experience? Does the approach change with physically aging?
A: Yes, yes and yes. My technique is evolving a lot. I have moments of micro panic — ‘holy sh-t, I almost died!’ — but those are fewer and fewer now. The moments of feeling great and having amazing thrills are increasing. I am the oldest and most senior company member and I see younger dancers struggling a bit with their shoulder, back, neck and I don’t know how they do this work without a “tool bag” that they can use at the end of the day to decompress and restore length and width and space in the joints. If I didn’t have my tool bag, my body would have been done long ago.
Q: Does someone performing this work embrace the response to being frightened, or do you all have very few issues with fear in the first place?
A: I think we’re all very fearful. We do it not because we’re fearless but because we’re interested in becoming braver. The idea is creating the illusion that challenges certain laws of physics that is a little more uncomfortable than doing a tendue or an arabesque. The idea is that we have a consistent technique to do what we do and feel safe, but to fool you into thinking it’s dangerous. That’s the true role of the Action Hero.
Ed. Note: This piece was originally published on July 11, 2011. It has been updated to reflect new performance dates.