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Dancers captivate audience with stunts.

By Maureen Needham

APRIL 20, 1998:  Audiences at TPAC's Polk Theater spent the better part of an evening this last weekend ducking their heads, groaning, and wincing as performers slammed into walls, dive-bombed onto floors, and smashed into each other. Choreographer Elizabeth Streb appeared Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with her troupe, Ringside's POPACTION. She reminded us that the theater can be a perfect antidote to couch potato-dom. Unlike most theatrical performances, outside of the circus or roller derby, Streb's troupe kept the audience kinesthetically involved with the action. When I arose from my seat after two hours, I felt as exhausted as if I had been performing onstage myself. Well, almost.

In "All Wall" (1987), four men and one woman hit the wall, literally speaking. Dressed in lustrous blue spandex body tights, they attacked an enormous, bright-red wall, one and two and three at a time, crashing into it with great force. Catching their hands high at the top, they'd hold themselves in readiness for a moment or so, then flip over and fall to the ground in an even greater series of crashes. After that, they scrambled back up again. This time, they'd catch someone in the crook of their flexed feet, disdainfully dropping him without warning and immediately falling down onto him--except that the dancer on the floor had conveniently rolled out of reach. Or else all five would throw themselves at the wall, one at a time, landing atop each other with fingers desperately grasping for some minute space where they might cling. Then they'd let go with a thud, one or two at a time, again narrowly missing the bodies below.

All surfaces, including mats, walls, and ceiling, were miked. As the gymnasts performed their kamikaze routines, the acoustics were manipulated by sound engineer/composer Matthew Ostrowski so that sometimes it sounded as if a rusty egg beater had been trapped inside the audio equipment. The event opened with metal sliding doors (rather than stage curtains), accompanied by the sound of a garbage truck's compactor cycle. It might be music to the ears of a waste management company, but for the rest of us, the noise level was intense. The cacophony added to the sense of pain endured by both audience and performers: The sound of glass shattering as each person crash-landed on the floor reinforced the perception of violence being done to the performers' bones and vital organs.

At times, the choreography looked something like an extravagant military drill designed for an obstacle course, only these men and women were in better condition than any Marines I ever saw at Quantico. As everyone hung precariously upside down, one person barked commands, which were executed instantaneously: "Turn!" "March!" "Heel!" "Turn!" If each one had not jumped off in perfect precision, someone else's head would have been crushed like an eggshell. You had to admire their derring-do as much as their dazzling skills.

No fear
Elizabeth Streb's dancers performing one of their daring feats
The only piece that could possibly claim some emotional content was Streb's most famous solo, "Little Ease" (1985). Lisa Dalton performed it while scrunched into a coffin-shaped box that was exactly the length of her body but not big enough for her to sit upright. She explored a variety of ways to contort her body in the restricted space, pacing from one end to the other. Once, she walked upside down in a crouch, with her neck bent forward at a right angle. At times she kicked frantically, as if to escape her nightmarish confinement, or she thumped her hands on the sides.

The sound effects of Dalton's body's movements were magnified (much louder than in the original version I saw in New York City in 1985), and added to this was the sound of a steel door clanging shut. I could not help but recall a Vietnamese student I knew who had been tortured by similar means. Locked in a metal box, she was left outside in the tropical sun while her Viet Cong captors waited for her to reveal her father's whereabouts. Speaking about the piece in an after-performance discussion, Streb confessed that, as a child on a summer's day, she used to capture insects in glass bottles; fascinated, she would watch them struggle for their freedom.

By the end of the evening, onlookers seemed desensitized to the violence. People began to cheer the performers' bravado, perhaps even subtly egging on the game of "chicken" being played onstage. It became easier to imagine that the performers would, like Saturday-morning cartoon characters, always manage to pop up again.

But how long will their performing lives last? Streb, for example, is only in her 40s, yet she did not perform. What happens in midlife, when the cumulative impact of multiple stressful activities becomes all too apparent? Lucky for her that she won a MacArthur "genius" award--at least now she can afford health insurance.

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