Dance and danger

Mar. 18, 2014 @ 12:19 PM

Elizabeth Streb has been called the Evel Knievel of dance. For more than three decades, this "Extreme Action Architect," has gained a reputation and won awards for pushing the boundaries of what the human body can do. She calls company members "action heroes" because they must deal with challenges and potentially dangerous situations in her work.

She considers her new show, "STREB: Forces!" to be her best extreme action extravaganza yet. "I have never seen action this exquisite," Streb said in a telephone interview.
In the show, performed today at UNC's Memorial Hall, performers dodge a swinging, steel beam, "fly" from a giant swinging claw and navigate shifting surfaces. Then, there's the Whizzing Gizmo, a two-ton, 25-foot high, revolving wheel that also moves up and down. Trapese artists Noe and Ivan Espana based the design of the Gizmo on their Wheel of Death.
Such apparatus is essential to Streb's work. "The apparatus allows us to fully flesh out action. Without it, my work would be like a symphony with no instruments," Streb said.
She doesn't use music. Instead, performers' actions provide the soundtrack thanks to microphones on the stage floor that make landings sound harder and faster. "Music is the true enemy of dance because it takes movement out of the physical plane and into the intellectual," Streb said.
She calls her choreography PopAction, which draws from dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus and Hollywood stunt work. Although she studied ballet and modern dance for years, she ultimately returned to the risk-taking and thrill-seeking of her youth in upstate New York. At age 8, she took to downhill skiing and continued until age 24. She rode motorcycles. "I crashed my motorcycle," she said. She took other chances. "I would go fishing in a boat with no motor and get caught in a storm," she added.
At 62, she proved she's still a risk-taker when she and two other performers executed her "Skywalk" by walking down the face of London's 10-story City Hall. This was one in a series of daredevil events her company staged on the city's landmarks as part of cultural offerings at the 2012 Summer Olympics. In "Skywalk," she and the others kept going despite the curved nature of the building and the fact that their legs had become numb, she said. "It's so scary when you're up so high people look like dots," she added.
The new documentary on Streb, "Born to Fly," concludes with footage of "Skywalk." The film premiered earlier this month at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX.
Streb expects her performers to be courageous and looks for this trait in auditions for potential company members. "If they seem tentative in their movements when I ask them to run as hard as they can and slam into a Plexiglass wall, that's a red flag," Streb said.
But she doesn't expect them to be fearless. "They are very afraid but they don't succumb to fear," she added.
Fabio Tavares Da Silva, 38, Streb's associate artistic director and a performer with the company since 2004, can vouch for that. In this new show, he has a major role in "Whizzing Gizmo," including a Superman-style leap from the top of this wheel.
A healthy fear keeps performers from being careless,Silva said in a telephone interview. "It's like going in the ocean. If you have no fear, the ocean's going to take you," he added.
Performers must be present moment-to-moment throughout Streb's work. Losing that focus can lead to accidents as Silva discovered two years ago. After he had completed his hardest feat on the Gizmo, he relaxed. As a result, his timing was off and he fell out of the wheel, badly breaking his ankle. After the ankle healed, he still felt fearful, for a while, in performances on the wheel when he approached the same moment that he fell. These days, his most fearful moment on this wheel occurs at a different point. "Now, it's when I'm running on the outside of the wheel," he said. He does a lot of running before he takes his leap. "I'm running, running, running, take off on one foot, raise my arms in the air and leap," Silva said.
He lands face-first on a thick mat. Streb performers train to land this way so that the muscular parts of their bodies absorb most of the impact. This runs counter to Silva's experiences as a circus acrobat, first in his native Brazil, and then in New York. "We would never think of falling on our faces," he said.

GO & DO

WHAT: "STREB: Forces!"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.(Wednesday, March 19).
WHERE: UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill.
TICKETS: 919-843-3333 or www.carolinaperformingarts.org