Planet Talk: Elizabeth Streb, Choreographer

“Born to Fly,” a documentary about Elizabeth Streb, is playing at Film Forum in NYC through September 23. Click here for showtimes and here to see our listing. Scroll down to see the “Born to Fly” trailer.

This interview was originally published on Senior Planet in December 2012.

Since the 1970s in downtown Manhattan, choreographer Elizabeth Streb has been trying to defy gravity with her signature style of athletic dance. Popaction, as she calls it, involves a highly precise movement vocabulary rooted in the breathtakingly almost-reckless: deliberate falls from high places, willful collisions with hard surfaces, daring near-encounters with heavy objects.

As the years have passed, Streb’s work has melded rigorous experiment with ever-larger doses of don’t-try-this-at-home spectacle. Part dance, part circus, part sporting event, her shows have won Streb international renown and several awards, including the 1997 MacArthur “genius” fellowship.

“We start out as fully functioning flying machines and move toward stillness as the years go on.”

Today, at age 62, the artist is figuring out how to infuse her work with new technologies like robotics and sampling. After performing last year at the Armory in NYC and as part of the 2012 Summer Olympics London Festival, she and her company are presenting her latest work, “FORCES! The Movical,” at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics – a.k.a. SLAM – a former machine shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that’s been their home for the past decade.

We spoke by phone with Streb last week.


You talk about flying – how you haven’t really lived unless you have flown. Do you mean this literally?
Flying – not knowing where you are – is a whole other life experience. When you have both feet off the ground, you have to make decisions very quickly, and that is the thrill. We can all fly, we just have different manners of flying.  In our work as a company, we think falling is flying – when we fall, we’re attempting to fly up.

I believe that down deep, every human dreams of flying, literally. Our experience on earth begins so physically; we start out as fully functioning flying machines and move toward stillness as the years go on.

What does flying mean for you nowadays?
For me now flying means doing pratfalls, pushups. At SLAM, I use something we have called a cutaway, which increases your stamina for impact. You let your arms go off to the side and land smack on your body. It strengthens every connective tissue you’ve got, the muscles, even the heart muscle.

Walking can be flying – it depends on how you pay attention, if you actually feel the movement. I used to study Wu Mei Kung Fu, and in his 80s the grand master would say that every move he makes is practice. Every time I drop something and have to pick it up, it can transform itself into a practice and exercise. 

In one of  the Movical’s video segments, you talk about not being too careful with yourself…
Though I’m not a Popaction practitioner anymore, I still let extreme things happen to me. In London this summer, I walked down the outside of City Hall with two of my dancers. It’s not the normal course of events during a person’s day.

You started STREB when you were in your 20s and now you’re in your 60s. How has your work changed even as you keep developing Popaction?
STREB started in 1981, 32 years ago, and I stopped dancing when I was 48. Since then, I feel that my choreography got better, more articulate; there’s a deeper thought process. And that stems partly from not knowing how it feels any more, because I’m not dancing. If I knew how it felt to do it, I might change the choices I’m making choreographically.

The show starts out with a strong call for social media participation: “Take out your phones and take pictures, tweet them, Facebook them,” etc. Beyond spreading the word about the show, what’s the idea here ?
At STREB, we are open source – SLAM is open to the public at all times. And I don’t own this movement. At the end of the show we invite audience members to try the moves. The idea is that it’s yours as well as mine – it’s an open source, social, public access attitude.

You also have a robot in “Movical”
The robot was programmed by robotics experts. We’re trying out some new things. In London, when the dancers performed on the spokes of the London Eye, we experimented with devices on their wrists that record the motion.  We’re exploring the sounds that the body makes in action and digitally collecting the information.  The sound in the new show is all sampled; you hear the moves we make, but simulations of what they would sound like if we were falling on hard surfaces.

Some other ideas we’re exploring: When we run on the floor you would see the feet impress themselves on the mat; at different times the floor would change color or create an image – the floor could be interactive. We’d be wearing digital outfits.

What is next for STREB?
After we did the Armory show last year, my dream is to do a stadium tour. It’s about scale and my ongoing question where does STREB extreme action reside most ardently.

“Born to Fly,” the Trailer

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