Left: Cover of How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (2010). Right: Elizabeth Streb, Performance of Catapult, 2009.

Elizabeth Streb is a choreographer, MacArthur Fellow, and founder of the STREB Extreme Action Company as well as the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn. Her new book, STREB: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero, is available April 16 from The Feminist Press.

AT THE HEART OF THIS BOOK are questions about time, space, bodies, and motion. When I first walked into dance studios in my late teens, I felt more or less like an idiot savant. I wasn’t a trained dancer and I wondered why they had adopted all these ballet practices. The moves were so wedded to music that the whole liturgy of their actions seemed tainted by that. So I started out very simply: I wanted to know why dancers and choreographers camouflage gravity, why they only use one base of support––the bottoms of their feet––and why they are spatially limited to the horizontal plane.

I’m still inspired by works that happened at Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s. Those artists excised the definition of movement from the classical ballet style. It’s like John Cage’s 4'33". So I added spectacle to their deconstructions, and I reconstructed these ideas of a task-based approach into what I see as a syntax or grammar that ends up existing on the extreme end of what I call action phenomenon, where virtuosity reads as spectacle.

People believe that circuses are denigrated forms of the formal presentation of movement. I totally disagree with that. I think that is a class bias. I’m speaking about the circus, not Cirque du Soleil. The real grubby, sawdust, smelly-animal circus is the only show I saw growing up so I have tremendous regard for that. But I noticed classism and thought it was troubling. A lot of my anthropological examination of action in the world comes from labor and comes from accidents––the idea of doing something rough to your body or allowing something rough to happen to your body.

I feel like I am more influenced by performance art and visual art than I am by choreographers—except for maybe Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham, as their formal rigor truly produced very arcane forms of action. If I were to think deep thoughts through movement, they would be my models, but in terms of the rest of the ideas of movement, I go to performance artists like Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramović. All of their works are about duration: This piece will be this long; this walk will be this long. In terms of physical rigor, I don’t think anyone worked more strenuously or with more physicality than they did (and are). This prescription of conditions is very important to me at this point. I have to create a rhythm of action that has the same power as iambic pentameter. I am trying to figure out what the correlative of that is in action. But I also try to remain ignorant of what could happen so that I can pay close enough attention to what actually happens once those things are in place.

— As told to John Arthur Peetz