Why America Needs Streb, But Got Diavolo
With the recent rise of the dance theatre company Diavolo to popular attention through the hit television show “America’s Got Talent” I can’t help find myself agonizing over how unfortunately similar (and different) they seem to what – for my money – is a company with a far better aesthetic… the Streb Extreme Action Company.
Diavolo and STREB, each performing with their signature rocking machines.
Both companies use big, man-powered machines to access what Elizabeth Streb calls “unhabituated space”, giant slides, rockers, scaffolding, you name it! Both companies’ dancers seem classically trained in ballet, modern, and gymnastics. (And the dancers of both companies are incredible. Absolutely no disrespect.) Both companies literally take flight in incredible ways, leaping from immense heights to shuttering dramatic effect… or maybe not.
In many critical ways, Diavolo is doing the same old thing that classically trained Western dancers have been doing for centuries… defying (or more aptly, denying) gravity. Each of the seemingly reckless Diavolo leaps lands in the soft arms of another company member, softening the moment, erasing the danger, denying the weight, apologizing for leaping in the first place.
Streb on the other hand knows how to take a hit. Through over 30 years of investigation, choreographer Elizabeth Streb has perfected and passed on to her dancers a technique of taking risks, taking hits, and making “real moves.” Through the use of protective mats of varying thickness, we see Streb dancers repeatedly coming back to Mother Earth with jaw-dropping, unadulterated FORCE. In this way too, the amount of time they spend in free-fall is nearly twice that a Diavolo dancer could ever achieve, since the Diavolo catch always happens with a convenient, safe respect to the center of the person catching while the Streb dancers keep going, twisting, turning, shape-shifting and pressing the edge of human potential for as long as possible before… SPLAT! they make contact with the floor.
And this is not to say that there is anything more dangerous about what Streb is doing. With a rigorous training regimen and institutional values on somatic practices like Alexander Technique, the dancers at Streb are well-taken care of and attentive to their use. Their choice to “take the hit” across broad surfaces of the body in fact reduces the risk of broken bones, whiplash, etc. while also providing the most dramatic and satisfying conclusion to a given series of moves.
The hero Gotham Needs…
Which brings me to my conclusion… Streb is the company America needs, while Diavolo is the company we’ve got. The rise of Diavolo to fame makes perfect sense. Their set pieces, projections, music, and ornamental movements are positively flashy, crowd pleasing, if not a little affronting. It’s perfect for the era of information overload. However, through all these bells and whistles they actually obscure and mask, rather than reveal, the true nature of reality: Sometimes people are there to catch us; sometimes we have to take the hit. There’s no denying gravity in real life. There is only – as Carlo Mazzoni Clemente was fond of saying – effort, risk, momentum and joy.
(Don’t even get me started on joy, that little thing which Streb’s Extreme Action Heroes infuse into every flight with panache… and which seems completely overrun by the very serious work of looking impressive in Diavolo.)
In short, I encourage everyone to check out and support the work of both Streb and Diavolo, but to look a little deeper at what it is that’s being said and celebrated or masked and marred through the movement of bodies in time and space.
To close, here’s one of my absolute favorite Streb pieces of all time…
“Crash” by STREB
and Elizabeth Streb in her own words on her style and work…
ADDENDUM ON CHARACTER (added September 21, 2017)
As a physical theatre artist and Butoh practitioner, I value authenticity and the embodiment of spirit as a tool for living and performance. In performance, the embodiment of spirit refers to not just the depiction or representation of character, but the fully present, fully lived expression of a point of view. In Streb, the choice is clearly not to play a character, but to play up the most fun-loving and joyful aspects of the performers’ selves. In Diavolo, as with many modern dance companies, there seems to be something in the middle, a half-hearted effort to portray character or atmosphere, without the necessary through-line or choreographic composition to support it. I say it’s better to let movement do what movement does best and let the human spirit finds its particular expression therein than flirt glibly with the invocation of character or story without being willing to fulfill dramatic promise or pay the dramaturgical cost.