Brooklyn Superheroes at the London Cultural Olympiad

| May 18, 2012 4:00 AM | Updated: July 19, 2012 5:30 PM video

Elizabeth Streb and two company members perform "Skywalk" on the City Hall of London on July 15, 2012. Photo by Julian Andrews

UPDATED: The Brooklyn-based STREB Extreme Action Company surprised London with their “One Extraordinary Day” of high-flying events on Sunday, July 15, which was dubbed “Surprises: STREB.” Though the daredevil company was invited by the Cultural Olympiad, part of the 2012 London Olympics, the planners kept the time and locations of the company’s events under tight wraps, with no advance notices allowed. Crowds were sure to witness the spectacles anyway, as the STREB events would unfold at London’s most famous landmarks.

 

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In a test of stamina, the dancers performed at locations all over the city from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Classic STREB routines that flaunt the force of gravity, such as the “Human Fountain” and “Ascension,” wowed unsuspecting crowds in Trafalgar Square. In a rare performance, the company’s fearless leader and choreographer, Elizabeth Streb, joined two dancers in walking perpendicularly down City Hall’s glass dome.

An “anti-gravitational ballet” took place on the South Bank in front of the National Theatre, where dancers plummeted 100 feet to the ground while safely harnessed to support wires. Another set of dancers threw themselves off the Millenium Bridge in “Waterfall,” whose bungee cords allowed the performers to barely brush the surface of the River Thames.

The steel wheel –which the company began rehearsing on in May at its Brooklyn space — made an appearance in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The day’s finale, “The Human Eye,” was a breathtaking spectacle in which dancers attached themselves to the spokes of the London Eye and spiraled down 165 feet of cable, nearly 500 feet in the air.

Though there was no advance notice of the performances, they did require a wee bit of advance planning. Mark Ball, artistic director LIFT, which staged the event for London Festival 2012 and Major of London, said the performances were met with awe and wonder.

“’One Extraordinary Day’ captured the spirit of London 2012 and generated real enthusiasm about London, not just from those Londoners and visitors fortunate enough to see it live, but for those following the day across the globe on news broadcasts, the web and social media,” he said. “This was undoubtedly the largest and most operationally complex project LIFT has ever delivered.”

More images of the day-long event are available on the event’s Facebook page.  Read about the company’s first rehearsal with one of the mechanized wheels used in London, below.

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If you caught STREB Extreme Action Company at the Park Avenue Armory in December, you watched, and possibly cringed, as 16 dancers leaped face-first from a three-story scaffold in the “Human Fountain,” the Bellagio Fountain’s mortal counterpart.

Always one to out-do herself, Creative Director Elizabeth Streb is planning lots of exhilarating events for “STREB: One Extraordinary Day,” the Cultural Olympiad commission from the 2012 London Olympics. STREB Extreme Action — straight out of Brooklyn — will wow unknowing passersby with theatrical stunts at various locations throughout the city, throughout the day.

The company is sworn to secrecy as to where and when their London performances will take place, but inside the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (S.L.A.M.), a former warehouse in Williamsburg, Streb is preparing her dancers for all that’s possible—or as is often the case at S.L.A.M.—the impossible.

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NYC-ARTS asks Elizabeth Streb about her choreography for her newest contraption, the wheel “Leru,” which her dancers will navigate at the London Cultural Olympiad this summer. Video by Perry Santanachote.

The day NYC-ARTS visited, adrenaline was particularly high. The rigging company had just dropped off a shiny new $110,000 toy—a 30-foot-tall mechanized wheel that Streb lovingly calls “Leru.”

“We’ve worked with a lot of rotating objects before, like the hamster wheel and the yellow gizmo that was a wheel with a counter weight, but never a perfect circumference like this,” said Streb. The choreographer, 62, burst with excitement as her dancers latched onto the cable spokes one-by-one with harnesses and metal sleeves. The wheel rotated at a snail’s pace of one rotation every 20 minutes. “My goal is to do a spoke dance governed by the occupation of a perfect line and the circumstances that occur as it goes through space at different angles,” she said. “It’s the most physically limited idea I’ve ever come up with, but I suspect that simplicity will be the hardest thing to do up there.”

Streb's dancers experiment with "Leru" on the day the 30-foot-tall wheel arrived at the company's Williamsburg rehearsal space. Photo by Perry Santanachote.

With no hesitation, the dancers immediately began experimenting—spinning, climbing, hanging, straddling—and some fumbling, which is to be expected. “It’s trickier than other contraptions we’ve worked on,” said Jackie Carlson, a dancer with Streb for five years. “It’s going around so slowly that you can’t really feel it moving. You don’t know where your body is in space and it’s hard to maneuver.”

It’s certainly a departure from the STREB pop action technique that the company is known for, which requires one to propel from one place to another as quickly as possible, often facilitated by zip lines, bungees, trampolines and air ramps. With Leru, it’s less daredevil and more lyrical, but still an attempt to defy the laws of gravity and motion.

“I think this piece of equipment has potential for a really beautiful aerial ballet,” said Fabio Tavares, the associate artistic director of STREB. “But Elizabeth doesn’t really like going slow, so she will think of ways to apply unnatural forces.”

 

Her first idea, posing the dancers perpendicular to the spokes, fell through immediately. Sometimes, gravity wins.

Streb dancers work against gravity to hold positions on the turning wheel. Photo by Perry Santanachote.

Streb was  in her teens when she first got the itch to fly. So she climbed a ladder and dove off without anything to break her fall. It wasn’t pretty, but it sparked a lifetime of extreme action and pushing human ability to its limit. She became consumed with physics, calculus and geometry—anything to help remove her from what she calls the cliché-ridden universe of dance. “Higher math and physics is deeply involved in our end product, but I’m no physicist,” said Streb. “I’m just obsessed with it.”

Thirty years and one MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award later, Streb has done so much more than fly. “There seems to be no end to what the body can do,” she said. The actions she sees athletes — and her dancers — accomplish these days amazes her. “Their moves are so much more compounded and exploded, moves that weren’t possible 30 years ago. That’s why we’re very proud to be sharing the same city with the Olympians.”

If not in London, come see for yourself in Williamsburg. The daring company’s rehearsals are always free and open to the public.

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