THIS MACARTHUR GENIUS WILL MAKE YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH DANCE
What brought Elizabeth Streb to Williamsburg? A dance space with no columns and 30-foot ceilings
By Paul Samulski
Walking the streets of Williamsburg, choreographer Elizabeth Streb registers things that most of us don’t. It might be the rhythm of a leaf blowing in the wind or a rat scurrying from a trash bag to a sewer. It might just be how angles of a building seem to change as she walks past. And her follow up thought is also unconventional: “Why can’t I do that choreographically?” Usually, Streb finds a way, working with company members in her studio, Streb SLAM, where she fuses dance, sports, gymnastics, and circus movements into a performance genre she calls Pop Action. Streb’s work has been widely recognized — she’s received MacArthur “Genius” Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship — and one of the wonderful things about SLAM is that it has an open door policy, allowing the public to attend rehearsals and observe her “theater of action.” We talked to Streb about Williamsburg and inspiration.
UrbanCoast.nyc: Streb SLAM has been located in Williamsburg for quite a few years now. I guess one could say that you were a pioneer.
Elizabeth Streb: It’s been fascinating watching the relatively rapid transformation. I can’t believe that Whole Foods and the Apple Store are here now. And Starbucks! First we were in SoHo, then DUMBO. I got this space in 2007, almost accidentally. It was part of a package of buildings that were purchased by developer Steiner Equities in the spring of 2006. When I walked in here I said, ‘Are you serious? 30-foot ceilings. No columns. One stop into Brooklyn. What was I thinking all those years?’ This immediately became our new home.
UrbanCoast: It’s very special.
Streb: It’s a cement block. It’s brick. It’s steel i-beams. It’s extremely basic, but I’m in love with this space. There’s absolutely nothing square. The roof tips. The space is basically a parallelogram, but there’s something about the vector energy that that stimulates inside you…the alchemy of the angles and what’s gone on here for decades and decades. That’s what inspires me.
UrbanCoast: You have an open door policy where you allow people to come in and watch rehearsals. How did that start?
Streb: When I got my first ground floor space, in Bed-Stuy, I used to leave the door open. Things just happened after that. A man came by at one time and dropped off a full length mirror, not knowing that I’m not a big fan of dancers looking at themselves when performing, so I just leaned it against the wall outside. Then some street people used to come by and check themselves out in the mirror. Some of them were homeless, so they spent a lot of time indoors in the space with us. Seeing an open door is sort of an invitation to come in…and people did.
UrbanCoast: What did your dancers make of it?
Streb: It’s funny, my first company couldn’t deal with it. The dancers were confused and got angry every time I would turn away from them to answer a question from or chat with one of the casual spectators. “How could you not be paying attention to us?” They were so upset by that they all quit.
UrbanCoast: How does having the public interact with the public affect the company?
Streb: I always believed that there were certain walls and barriers with regard to art that needed to be broken down. At times we would do performances in public spaces and observers would put down this imaginary line that they wouldn’t cross. To me, this limited my contact with people whom I might be able to learn something from or people who might become future audience members.
UrbanCoast: Would you characterize the work you create as dance?
Streb: I really don’t like dance. I was never a dancer. It’s funny, when I auditioned for the dance program in college they asked “So what ratifies you to major in dance” and I was like “I downhill ski. I ride motorcycles. I played varsity basketball and baseball” and they were like, ‘Who cares.; And then I told them that, “I can pick up every movement and rhythm from every disco dance.” They didn’t work either. They said, ‘That has absolutely nothing to do with modern dance.’ I was raised in a hard working, upstate, middle-class, family, so I have tough skin. All I said was, “I will prove you wrong”…and I believe I have done just that.
UrbanCoast: Can you explain the part that music plays (or doesn’t play) in your performance pieces?
Streb: I found that I just couldn’t listen to the same thing over and over again, night after night. That’s one of the reasons why I’m trying out this new idea of having a live DJ sit in on each performance and supply the music. I like that when the audience comes in there’s music playing and activity going on, but when the piece starts…BOOM, there’s silence and then just the sounds of the dancers. The audience really gets the physicality of the whole thing.
UrbanCoast: What are you reading?
Streb: Why Does The World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. It follows the question why is something better than nothing and takes it one step further to if something is better than nothing, why is there this as opposed to that. I’m also reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
What are you listening to?
Streb: Music isn’t real important to me. It tends to interrupt me and my thinking process. Not to mention that I have real bad taste in music. I do currently have Glenn Gould’s “Fugues” on my iPod though, which I quite enjoy.
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WHERE THE CREATIVE CLASS GOES TO WORK: THE BROOKLYN NAVY YARD, INDUSTRY CITY, BROOKLYN ARMY TERMINAL & THE NEWLY OPENED EMPIRE STORES