Preview: Streb’s SEA flies high at PIFA

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The 2018 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts has turned into a showcase for aerial choreography from the Cristal Palace with musicians and dancers performing on a crane hoisted chandelier spinning in the air on the Schuylkill River Bank, to Tangle Arts aerialists flying over drag diva Taylor Mac’s 24-hour History of Music marathon. And the most high-flying daredevilry of all will undoubtedly be choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s SEA, her acronym for Singular Extreme Actions.

For over 30 years, Streb has been creating action choreography that combines dance, acrobatics, aerials and extreme action sequences that even Hollywood stunt-actors would want a green screen for.  Her company, a “motley troupe of flyers and crashers” take on a choreographic realm that Streb has pioneered for over 30 years. Indeed, her shows aspire to break barriers of art, aging, injury, and gender.  In her documentary film, Born to Fly she says “anything too safe is not action.”

Streb talked about SEA in a phone interview and the current non-stop tour with performance runs in Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee, Illinois and of course Philadelphia.  “After Philly, we go to Germany.  I feel Philly is our second home. Since the 80s, I love returning to Philadelphia. The audiences there and what is happening artistically all over the city is amazing.”

Streb said by design SEA is “much more portable. Well for Streb relatively.”  Compared to previous shows, even though it still looks elaborate, she admits. In pursuit of the perfect show ala Bjork (“who wants to sing the perfect song before she dies, I want to build the perfect show”) She recalls that it used to take up 25 hours just to load in some of her shows. “I was foolishly not paying attention to the practicality. Now we are down to six hours with SEA.”

In between tour stops, the company performs in their open rehearsal series at SLAM, the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, their studios in Brooklyn NY.  At SLAM, Streb has also launched a slate of youth programs in dance, acrobatics and circus arts including the STREB PopAction School and the Espana/STREB Trapeze Academy.

There is nothing portable about the choreography though and SEA’s cast of ‘Extreme Action Heroes’- Cassandre Joseph, Jackie Carlson, Daniel Rysak, Felix Hess, Loganne Bond, Tyler Duboys, Luciany Germán and Justin Ross- are seemingly ready for anything and at the same time the choreography is more than bravery and off-the-cliff feats of daring. They have smashed through glass, and explored the dynamics of falling upward, pirouetted on air and as Streb has continued to explore undiscovered dance territory.

“I think we’re investigators. Our job in modern dance has always been to try to enrich the vocabulary, that every unique body has to offer. And that involves asking a lot of squirrelly questions about action. We know about the invisible forces.” Namely gravity. “Separate from grace and delicacy,” Streb feels that “the effort to camouflage gravity so avidly, (to me) …takes away a component of drama in dance. Gravity is the integral component and revealing its force in choreography will always be part of what we do.” 

Indeed, gravity is not a problem, but an instrument in her choreographic template, as a choreographer explores and defines the theoretical physics of acrobatic dance. In her book “How To Become an Extreme Action Hero” (FeministPress) Streb reveals her creative journey and choreographic theories of fear, motion and the potential of the human body that takes her dancers right up to the edge and through their own perception of fear.

Beyond any wincing fear- factor for audience members is that Streb’s choreographic expressiveness is always present, indeed, she is exploring new vocabulary in aerial dance.  Streb mentions that some of the moves in SEA should have specific names, same as dance steps. “Yes, the dancers are very lyrical in the air. In fact, more and more we’re even treating the sound of our action, our hardware like musical instruments.  We try to choreograph the iambic pentameter.”   Better brush up on you Shakespeare action hero fans.

PIFA performances of SEA June 5-7 in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, check for further information.

Photos courtesy of STREB

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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