In Search of the ‘Real Move’ With Elizabeth Streb’s Big Box

Streb-Ringside, a Brooklyn-based modern dance company, is coming to the Joyce Theater, and it’s gonna be heavy. Not heavy as in death and depression, but literally 3,000 pounds heavy. The tonnage is made up of padded wagons, a trampoline, Velcro mats, inflatable air compressors and a thick plywood wall supported by steel tubing. This is all packaged in a 34-foot-wide, 25-foot-deep and 20-foot-high box that would make any technical crew member cringe at the thought of hauling it in and out of a theater. And while clunky hardware and awkward apparatus are nothing new for Elizabeth Streb, the group’s founder and choreographer, this is the first time her inventions have been woven together into one enormous, mobile, self-contained playground.

The idea behind the box-or “box truss,” as its designers refer to it because of the many cables, ropes and platforms attached to its rigid aluminum frame-is to eliminate the cacophonous set changes and 30-minute intermissions that have plagued Streb-Ringside’s performances throughout its 20-year existence. Now, the dancers can writhe from the ceiling in swivel harnesses, duck flying metal objects and hurl themselves against solid surfaces in a seamless, roller-coaster-paced production. In just a few days, Ms. Streb will help break down the box into 63 pieces (not including the motors, tools or mats), load it onto a truck and lug it from her current studio in the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn to the Joyce, where it will be set up for the first time in front of an audience.

While most of the dances in the upcoming show are being recycled, the new set is allowing Ms. Streb to add one thing that’s brand new: a bungee jump. She has hired Michael O’Mahony-whom she calls a “transgressive action expert” and whose illicit activities include regular jumps off the Manhattan Bridge-to adapt his equipment to her 20-foot metallic creation. Bug-eyed and gaping, she stood in her studio listening to him talk about how he recently got caught attempting to climb the World Trade Center.

“Every action that’s real is against the law,” declared Ms. Streb. Then she had a thought: Bungee jumping is like “trampolinizing your body to create a turbulent universe in which you have to deal with instinctive and immediate adjustments.” It was a big thought. “That’s what I hate about normal dance,” she added. Ms. Streb speaks plainly and passionately when she talks about ballet, which to her is the epitome of “normal” dance. “I think it’s classist, basically. And racist. It’s so baroque, so from Europe, so about another century. So sexist. It’s everything I don’t like.”

Having studied ballet for 23 years, along with traditional modern dance technique, Ms. Streb can honestly say that controlled, premeditated movement simply does not interest her. “They take everything about what it means to witness a human body moving, and they subtract it all-the sound, smell, sweat,” she said. “They camouflage it with pretty lights, loud symmetrical music and technique that really erases the edges that gravity could create. Believe me, I don’t understand it.”

But it’s O.K. that Ms. Streb doesn’t like mainstream dance, because-guess what?-mainstream dance doesn’t really like her. In December 1995, the last time Ms. Streb performed at the Joyce, The New York Times wrote that “almost everything this group did seemed both terribly difficult and totally pointless.” The review criticized the performance’s lack of plot and drama, and cited Swan Lake as a quality piece in which an emotional love story is told effectively through dance.

But to Ms. Streb, her work isn’t about telling a story; it’s about provoking a visceral response from the audience, who often gasp and cover their eyes while watching the action. Some say her work is violent and masochistic and, judging by the bruises on the dancers, they may be right. But Ms. Streb thinks she knows the real reason why some critics aren’t into her work.

“If I was just looking at our bodies , I would say they’re not doing anything but slamming around, and that is because my subject isn’t the body-it’s the action they’re doing. It’s actually the invisible thing they’re doing. And it requires reviewers to do a paradigm shift.” When The Times criticized her work for emphasizing “action for the sake of action,” Ms. Streb took it as a compliment.

Despite her quest for unmitigated action, Ms. Streb still hasn’t ever achieved what she calls a “real move.” What is it? “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s an idea that the human body can move and remain authentic without intellectualizing or pre-guessing or hesitating or all the things humans do to impose themselves on this pure idea.” Right. With philosophies like these, Ms. Streb could easily slip from choreographer to Zen guru without even knowing it.

At 47, Ms. Streb is, in fact, facing the task of having to make the transition from dancer-choreographer to choreographer-producer. Last June, she received a 1997 MacArthur Foundation grant, which, along with $290,000, offers priceless prestige. When she found out about the award, she lay face down on the floor in an X. “That was a real definite life-changing moment,” she said. Indeed, her solo performance at the Joyce in a piece called “Little Ease,” in which she moves within the confines of a human-size box, may be one of her last.

But for now, she’s got the big box, which has not been without its own set of headaches. Last spring, Hope Clark, the star member of Streb-Ringside, was rehearsing a dance called “Fly” when she attempted to do what most humans would consider impossible: fly. She ended up on the floor, underneath a pile of pipes. Ms. Clark escaped practically injury-free and chalked up the experience to being part of the deal with Streb-Ringside. “The work is really serious,” Ms. Streb said. “And when an accident like that happens, people’s lives are in danger; there’s no question about it.”

It’s hard not to feel vulnerable, though, when your body is in the hands of a giant piece of aluminum. “Designers will make things that look great,” said Ms. Clark. “But even with designers that know our work, it’s still hard [for them] to understand the forces with which we’re landing on things.” Bill Ballou, one of the engineers who helped build the box, said that a motorcycle could crash into the plywood wall, and it wouldn’t budge. But take eight dancers with more will than fear, and over time the wall will have to be replaced. “We’ve basically almost broken everything we’ve landed on,” Ms. Streb said proudly.

Although she will be cutting down on life-threatening activities, Ms. Streb said her new toy will be center stage for at least the next 10 years. After the three-week run in New York, the heavy load will follow the troupe on a tour across the country, and then on to Europe and Australia. Ms. Streb looks on the box tour philosophically. “Modern dance is incredibly squeamish about people getting hurt,” she said. “In order to experiment with your body in the air with movement, you have to let that go a little bit.” In Search of the ‘Real Move’ With Elizabeth Streb’s Big Box