Do you ever wonder how something as trivial and mundane as movement affects people? It is through dance. My mother put me in my first dance class, a Mommy and Me movement class, when I was three years old, and I haven’t stopped dancing since. In my internship with Aubin Pictures, my background of dance drew me towards their newest documentary, Born to Fly. I thought I was familiar with almost all styles of dance, but I had never heard of “POPACTION” – the movement technique invented by Elizabeth Streb.
Dance has always been a form of expression and release for me, as well as a form of exercise. Letting loose; getting lost in music; and allowing myself to open up and let my mind and body work without any constraints gives me an irresistible sense of freedom. There is no pressure, no judgment, no competition. There is only movement and artistry. Dance is unique in that the art comes from the moment of creation, not the final product. The piece is temporary but the impact can last a lifetime. The power that dance brings to artists is through their explorations of movement, constantly finding new ways to move and depict a story or even emote their feelings. The grace and beauty of the performer’s expressive movements affects the audience. I know I am moved by watching someone I have never met share a part of him or herself without even speaking. That is the beautiful thing about dance, it quietly teaches so much.
Elizabeth Streb takes this power of dance and makes it her own, focusing on strength, action, and acrobatics. The film Born to Fly depicts the suspense and exhilaration of the STREB dancers. Streb has them experiment with movement and gravity in hopes of experiencing her dream of flying. When I was watching this film, I found myself tensing up while watching some of the stunts they were performing; from running through and jumping over a human sized hamster wheel-like contraption to dodging concrete bricks on a pendulum to jumping through glass barriers. These dancers must undergo such physical extremes to gain the strength and endurance needed to rehearse and perfect Streb’s choreography. With POPACTION, I find it interesting how the dancers don’t try to cover the raw action and controversial danger of what they are doing. Breaking the traditions of dance, Streb’s performances allow the audience to hear the dancers’ heavy breathing and grunting. The audience can hear the bodies dropping to the ground, and they can see the hard work in the dancers’ faces.
Traditionally for dancers, making insanely difficult tricks look effortless is part of the job. For example, when watching ballerinas dance in pointe shoes, on top of their toes, it looks graceful and airy. However, these movements are very painful, taking up hours and hours everyday to practice to grow used to the pain. Both Streb’s dancers and traditional ones go through such intense training, from dietary needs, to multiple doctors, to hours of exercise and rehearsal every day, to bandaging and icing and heating and massaging their overused and hurt bodies. The amazing thing about dance is that after all of this, these dancers get on stage for just a few minutes and have the power to bring people to tears. These men and women have such incredible strength and focus yet they move with such artistry.
Streb not only resists masking the pain her dancers endure she also works with her dancers to invent new forms and territories of movement. In her various notebooks she is constantly discovering, pushing the boundaries between art, physics and action. Her dancers climbing and dancing on the wires of the London Eye, during the “One Extraordinary Day” performance, create a sense of freedom for the dancers themselves and a beautiful image for those on the ground to keep. Just like when Philippe Petit strung a tightrope between the twin towers and danced across it on August 7, 1974, these people are putting themselves where no one has gone before. I find that the ephemeral sense of this art adds to its beauty. The lightness and grace of the dances in the sky is heavily contrasted by both the shows Streb puts on in New York City and the physical training she puts her dancers through. Her dancers are flying through the air, freefalling, hitting the ground, spinning at different angles and heights, and distributing their weight amongst themselves to create various shapes in and around her customized machinery. This is what Streb’s dancers love, and they give up a lot for it.