New York

Elizabeth Streb Ringside

Joyce Theater

One might think it impossible for a choreographer to inspire physical empathy in the audience, yet, for the first time in my life, I experienced what I can only term sympathy pains while watching Elizabeth Streb Ringside. Dancers hurl themselves against walls and onto the ground fearlessly, percussively, and with what appears to be all their might, while the wincing audience collectively contracts. I’m reminded of Thoreau on Ktaadn, shouting “Contact!,” overwhelmed by the elemental, sheer muscle of nature.

Streb’s work differs significantly from the contact improvisation of Steve Paxton et al, but the physical trust and communication, the athletic quality and surges of energy seemed similar. Because so much of Streb’s work demands gymnastic split-second accuracy, the dancers often give directives to each other—whether about applying more pressure, or cuing their readiness for that next leap of faith. During the recent performance, this communication at times registered as rehearsed and too cute, but for the most part it felt necessary and genuine. Although Impact, 1991, was by far the most startling work on the program, the new piece, Link, 1992, was a compelling duet.

A square of bluish neon lights contains the activity in Link, and a blue tube—neither fixed nor flexible—connects the dancers to each other; it is this element that is the source of and challenge to their security and balance. A compositional line that shapes the pieces, and acts as a third partner, enables the duet to become a trio. Streb has an uncanny ability to play with our perception of objects and structures. In one sequence from Link, the dancers appear to jump out of the mats, like fish from a pond. It’s not just the curve of their bodies as they fly up that creates this illusion, it’s the manner in which their bodies seem to sink back into the floor. They take what we perceive as firm ground—we’ve already experienced them slamming against its unrelenting surface—and proceed to lend it a malleable, embracing quality.

Another salient feature of Streb’s work is her equitable treatment of men and women. Her choreography is so physically taxing that, if her dancers were involved in professional sports, they would most certainly be segregated by gender. Here, however, the physical demands on the male and female dancers are the same. Although her program might have been more diverse, Streb’s choreography continues to explore and push the athletic complexity of dance, articulating a tension between simultaneously unbridled and superbly controlled action that is literally breathtaking.

Melissa Harris