BECKET – Choreographer Elizabeth Streb has long been interested in how to push the human body beyond its usually perceived (or recommended) limits. She is particularly fascinated by the idea of flying, but is not satisfied with the typical ways in which dancers perform the flight or (apparently) defy gravity. What if his dancers bounced off the ground instead of pouncing on it?
The retrospective that his eponymous company performs at Jacob’s Pillow this week traces the development of these investigations, with small group solos or dances, some involving props of different sizes, and a group piece that uses a large “machine.” . To this eccentric assortment are added enormous gymnastic equipment (mats of different thicknesses, trampoline worthy of a giant). Performers and the skillful stage crew frequently pull, push, stack, organize and rearrange these objects, as if the stage were a well-maintained playroom.
And although the performers often seem to perform with mischievous glee, many of their exploits carry serious risk, which has made some of Streb’s works controversial.
Fittingly, Streb calls his dancers / performers “Action Heroes” and they look like every inch of the room, in their sleek blue, long-sleeved, high-necked unitards designed by Andrea Lauer & Timberlake Studios. But unlike movie superheroes, there aren’t any special effects, and (since they’re actually human beings) they don’t have any supernatural powers. In a typical dolphin dive, a dancer advances on his hands, then, in a sort of rolling pear tree, waves through his body; the landing is “cushioned” because the weight of the body hitting the ground is never concentrated in one place. Conversely, in many Streb corps frontal landings, the whole body lands at the same time – smack! – like the worst belly flop you’ve ever experienced. Yes, this is where those thick rugs come in, but a belly / face plant from above is always a shock; these action heroes usually land, bounce, and climb back up to where they “flew” from, to start all over again.
It’s an intoxicating mix, this potentially perilous, but often witty, concoction of physicality. Also, the Pillow compilation doesn’t include some of the really provocative works, stuff that when I saw it years ago made me look away: the dancers not only fly / drop from really high structures, but also evade the rapid sway or plunge of the steel beams. I wasn’t revisiting that previous show, otherwise I would have had to keep a close eye on the proceedings. As it turns out, the soundscape of this show – curated and presented on stage by DJ / Emcee Zaire Baptiste – contains snippets of commentary from dance critics over the decades. Some are dismissive, but many are admiring, albeit (funny) bewildered.
In “Buster,” from 2002, it’s a wooden beam that should be avoided, but the action heroes avoid being timed with a precision worthy of a Buster Keaton gag, by leaning forward. or rearward on the ground just before impact. The piece ends with a massive rectangular plank, with a relatively small square cut out at one end, pointing towards associate artistic director and longtime company performer Cassandre Joseph, standing at the bottom of the stage. The cutout goes right over Joseph, close enough to wave his hair (or maybe it’s the audience collective exhaling in relief creating the breeze). In the 1983 “Add”, it is Tyler DuBoys’ own body that he appears to be arguing with, as he turns forward or backward in planned positions, like a gymnast on a horse. pommel. There is a similar sense of wrestling in 1985’s “Little Ease,” but here Kairis Daniels has the added challenge of performing this physical drama while being locked in a 3×6 wooden box that she climbs up and hangs onto. , sometimes hanging as if a spider is hanging on its own silk.
The performers’ interactions with the various props make these inanimate objects sensitive: the inflatable stick in “Pole Vaults” (1978) is like a Ginger Rogers for Jackie Carlson’s Fred Astaire, while she, gripping it horizontally, rolls up and pirouette; in “Whiplash” (1983), the rope in Daniel Rysak’s hands is a thread under tension, or a snake to be circled.
In the end, it is the pieces of the large group that amaze. As a result, the highlights of the show are the opening show “Tip” (2006), “Surface” (1993) and the finale, the “Air” of 2003. In “Tip”, Carlson manipulates a giant “machine” to half-wheel from its semi-circular ramp inside while colleagues ride the platform above, frolic, glide and ride waves that often seem capable of knocking anything down; In “Surface,” some heroes manage two sheets of 4×8 plywood while others scale up and descend the ever-tilted planks – the nanoseconds in which fingers can be crushed (or entire bodies trampled) make hair stand on end.
“Air” is simply wonderful, as the heroes soar and catapult themselves from this enormous trampoline. Imagine their joy in performing this particular piece on the Pillow’s outdoor stage, where, finally, for this high-flying group, the sky is literally the limit! They bounce and fly, up, down, or folded or twisting like Olympic divers in a swimming pool, or elegantly tilted and arched like fish in the sea, or birds plunging into infinity.