The Canadian city staging the Olympics will first host New York visitors performing a special feat: death-defying dance.
"It's a mixture of slam dancing, exquisite and amazing human flight, and wild action sport," says Elizabeth Streb, the daredevil founder of the Brooklyn-based STREB Extreme Action Company. "We feel we're close to the achievements of the Olympics."
Opening in Vancouver on Friday, the adrenaline-pumping show STREBRAW is a highlight of the Cultural Olympiad 2010, a two-month arts festival that overlaps with the Winter Olympics.
Streb, an exuberant 60-year-old with spiky black hair, has won a MacArthur "genius" award for her work with the company she created in 1985. She remains fit a decade after she stopped performing her own choreography — so physically demanding each move is calculated mathematically to avert catastrophe.
She calls the eight members of her troupe "extreme action heroes" for testing the limits of the human body — free-falling through space, vaulting off one another and slamming into walls and floors with joyful abandon.
No wonder she's been called the Evel Knievel of dance.
On a winter afternoon in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, STREB rehearses at its home base, a former mustard seed factory purchased for $1.3 million. It's filled with equipment that includes a bright yellow wall panel 30 feet high, a flying trapeze and a rotating floor.
Strapped into a harness, Fabio Tavares da Silva soars off the wall into an exhilarating swan dive, attached by a cable to Jackie Carlson, who zooms upward as he swoops down, his face nearly hitting the ground when he lands, palms-first.
Streb gasps. It was a close call, and the split-second timing and tightly calibrated equipment must be adjusted a bit. Tavares da Silva is unscathed, smiling.
"I'm trying to make it so the audience freaks out, 'cause it's unpredictable — you know, that roller-coaster feeling," says Streb.
Only to the audience is it like an accident that didn't happen; the performers know precisely what they're doing.
Next, Tavares da Silva and Carlson take turns pushing off the wall and swinging into the air, then slamming against the wall full force, facing away from the wall, and climbing up quickly, still with their backs against it.
In another piece, performers tumble and dodge cinderblocks that swing past them like giant pendulums, narrowly missing heads and limbs.
The point is not to show off, but to showcase the rhythms and forces of life itself — and its constant vulnerability. Streb treats her performers' bodies as if they were the musical notes of a dynamic composition.
"I'm trying to develop a music, a literature, a poetry for pure movement," she says.
STREP BRAVE uses a piece of equipment called Whizzing Gizmo, a mammoth spinning wheel with a cone that looks a nightmarish amusement park ride. The dancers romp inside and outside the wheel, riding a force that finally spits them out, sending them flying through the air.
This work will be performed after Vancouver, when the company embarks on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour scheduled through spring.
For more than two decades, Streb has toyed with gravity, both breathtakingly and brutally. Up becomes down, and the wall a floor.
"In traditional dance, the support used is the smallest surface of the body — the foot," she says. "Why not use bigger parts of the body as support, like the back — against the wall that becomes the new floor?"
In their 20s and early 30s, her eight stars have superbly trained, strong bodies.
Carlson and another woman were members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Tavares da Silva worked for a circus in his native Brazil. Another STREB member from Brooklyn, Cassandra Joseph, was a gymnast.
The company's flying trapeze is also used to train amateurs, both adults and children. While STREB rehearsed, local children and their parents dribbled in for an after-school program.
At one point, a 4-year-old girl mounted the trapeze and, supervised by a trained man, she soared through the air alone, beaming, her arms outstretched. Peals of laughter filled the transformed Brooklyn factory, along with the pitter-patter of kids' feet running past the high-flying professionals.
The Williamsburg space is "like a public park," says Streb, and passers-by are urged to step in and watch, anytime.
"The last thing I want to be is 'art'!" Streb says with a grin. "I want this to be a populist activity that moves the masses."
Though her company has appeared in venues like Manhattan's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, they mostly perform outdoors or in public places that attract just about everybody, touring in a 53-foot truck.
She says that down-to-earth aim is rooted in her childhood, as one of two adopted daughters of working-class parents in Rochester, N.Y.
Streb graduated from a dance program at the State University of New York, and has recently completed graduate studies in mathematics and philosophy.
"But I grew up with people who work with their hands and they have to fight for a living," she says. "What you see here has the same feeling. Some people cry watching this. They can relate."
Streb video gallery: http://www.streb.org/V2/company/video.html
Cultural Olympiad 2010: http://www.vancouver2010.com/cultural-festivals-and-events
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