As my companion and I were leaving the Thursday-night Carolina Performing Arts performance of STREB – FORCES! at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, I joked that I could review the show using only one word: Wow! Seconds into the high-energy, “extreme action” performance (that’s Streb Lab for Action Mechanics’ (SLAM) director Elizabeth Streb’s term), the audience was gasping, whooping, wincing, and yelling at the heart-stopping movement sequences performed by the eight dancers. The excitement and intensity never let up, and the audience rode the wave right along with the performers.
Those who didn’t already have a sense of what they were about to see got a hint when DJ Zaire Baptiste came out at the beginning and primed the crowd by announcing that, contrary to traditional performance etiquette, the Streb troupe wanted the audience members to leave their iPhones on, take pictures, tweet about the performance and, above all, make some noise!
The FORCES set and dancers were in full view as the audience members entered and found their seats. A truss system similar to what you might see at a rock concert dominated the stage, as high and wide as the stage space allowed. It framed a raised platform, on which was placed a clear plexiglass wall. Another lower platform was placed in front of the main platform. A large video screen formed the backdrop for the truss system and platforms.
Typically, dancers work hard to learn how to land with as little noise as possible. SLAM, in contrast, wants to call attention to those landings and to the impact of the dancers’ contact with any surface. To that end, the entire stage is miked. So the when the dancers did flying leaps and landed face-first (think belly flop, only on a hard surface instead of water) on the raised platforms at the edge of the stage, or flung themselves at the plexiglass wall, we heard the impact — loud and clear. The audience oofed and ohhed in response, providing spontaneous accompaniment to the action onstage.
The dancers called out verbal cues to each other from time to time and interacted with the audience as well. DJ Baptiste would often call out tongue-in-cheek names that the company had obviously come up with to refer to some of the feats they performed.
FORCES is one of those performances that almost defies description. Part dance, part gymnastics, part theater, part circus, part multimedia performance, FORCES is a nonstop visceral extravaganza that leaves you breathless and in awe of what the human body is capable of — and what the human mind is willing to attempt. Although the entire performance is comment-worthy, I’ll try to pull out a few things that will give some sense of what the audience experienced.
In Slice, a 10-foot I-beam suspended center stage from a chain attached at its center was set spinning by the dancers. The dancers then proceeded to outrun it, duck under it, and in general play chicken with a piece of steel that could do some pretty serious damage if they miscalculated by even a few inches. Although there was no impact (thank God) in this section, sound effects enhanced the movement of the I-beam (think slow-motion helicopter sounds), making the audience all too aware of the weight and potential deadliness of the beam.
In Fall, the horizontal part of the truss system was lowered to a few feet off the ground. As it then began to rise toward the top of the proscenium arch, the dancers began walking out to the center of it one at a time and began doing free falls onto a one-foot-thick mat. No big deal, right? I mean, they’re falling onto a mat, right? Well, how about face first? (Think belly flop again.) How about from 30 feet? None for me, thanks; but it was exhilarating to watch.
Rotate featured two platforms spinning in opposite directions, with the dancers running and jumping on and off and between the platforms in mind-boggling combinations. Most fascinating was when the dancers played with centrifugal force, the spinning of the center platform allowing them to maintain impossibly tilted positions as it went round and round.
For Fly, dancer Jackie Carlson was strapped into a harness on the “fork end” of a huge apparatus that looked very much like a tuning fork. As the other dancers helped to raise and lower and spin her around by pushing down or up or around on the other end (think seesaw — one that not only goes up and down, but also around in a circle). Although Carlson was off the floor and often upside down (her harness allowed her to spin head over heels between the fork tines as she was simultaneously going round and round), this sequence featured the most “dance-like” movements, as Carlson often soared with her legs in passé or some other balletic position.
Bound featured four dancers in harnesses suspended in front of the video screen surface, on which aerial footage of cityscapes and landscapes were projected (if you ever saw the film To Fly at the Smithsonian, you’ll have an idea of the footage). Raised and lowered with ropes by their fellow dancers, the dancers ascended and descended the wall of images, flipping and rotating and rapelling off the screen surface in their harnesses. The effect was dizzying.
For Tumult, the surface that served as the video screen was tilted on an angle toward the audience. The dancers climbed up it, slid down it, or jumped from it onto mats placed at the bottom of the slope. A simple premise, but loads of fun.
The big finish was Rocket, which featured a yellow apparatus, the Whizzing Gizmo — a cross between a gyroscope, a ferris wheel, and a hamster wheel. As the Gizmo spun around, the dancers moved within it and on top of it, leapt from it, and rode it as they clung to the outside — which of course is a gross oversimplification of what they accomplished.
As with the rest of the performance, the dancers’ timing in this section was flawless, their entrances and exits from the device fluid and almost imperceptible. One dancer would be on, and then he or she would be off and another dancer would be on, with the “gizmo” never stopping. Then there would be three of them, then four. Often, as one dancer mounted the Gizmo, another dancer, propelled by the momentum of the device, would take a flying leap and land on a mat on the opposite side of the stage. As astounding as the whole thing was, the dancers made it look easy, thanks to the countless hours of rehearsal that such apparent effortlessness inevitably requires.
Reviewer Viki Atkinson’s cell-phone photos of “Tumult” (left) and and the “gizmo”
Between the different action sequences, video footage of Streb talking about the work and its inspiration was projected on the screen. This gave the audience a taste of the thinking and philosophy behind Elizabeth Streb’s approach to movement; it also allowed time for the set crew to exchange one apparatus for another. The entire production was seamlessly executed, moving from section to section with no drag. In fact, I probably wasn’t alone in feeling a little wrung out from the relentless pace and intensity of the 90-minute performance.
In addition to the title of choreographer, Streb (who is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient) refers to herself in the playbill as an “action architect.” The members of her technical crew are referred to as “action collaborators,” and the dancers are referred to as “action engineers.” That makes perfect sense to me. This is not a dance company in any traditional sense of the word, and FORCES is nothing if not action-packed.
SECOND OPINION: March 20th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Susan Broili: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x1548110384/REVIEW-Streb-awesome-exhilarating-exhausting and March 18th preview by Susan Broili: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x2025288535/Dance-and-danger (Note: You must register to read these articles); March 19th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6720; March 17th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Ally Levine: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/03/action-based-theater-group-streb-comes-to-unc; and March 13th Durham, NC Indy Week interview with Elizabeth Streb, conducted by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/artery/archives/2010/02/17/elizabeth-streb-the-independent-interview and March 12th mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/streb-forces/Event?oid=3885742. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 15th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/03/streb-the-evel-knievel-of-dance-will-perform-forces-on-march-18th-and-19th-in-chapel-hill/.)
STREB – FORCES! (Carolina Performing Arts, March 18 and 19 in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). SHOW: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/ros_perf_series/streb-forces/. THE TOUR: http://streb.org/V2/company/tour.html. VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K5vfTO9JF8 and https://www.youtube.com/user/strebvideo. PRESENTER: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, and https://twitter.com/UNCPerformArts. VENUE: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/ros_venue/memorial-hall/. OTHER LINKS: Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) (Brooklyn, NY dance company): http://streb.org/index.html (official website), https://www.facebook.com/STREBSLAM (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/STREBSLAM (Twitter page). Elizabeth Streb (Rochester, NY-born dance, choreographer, and teacher): http://streb.org/V2/vision/elizabeth.html (official bio), https://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.streb.7 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/STREBSLAM (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Streb (Wikipedia). [RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s reviews, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/viki-atkinson/.