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STREB BOUNCES BODIES AT LINCOLN CENTER, AUSSIES DANCE STORIES

This article originally appeared in the Culture section of Bloomberg News on July 13, 2006.

July 13 (Bloomberg) — Last time I saw Elizabeth Streb, years ago, she had her dancers throwing themselves at walls. One of them was slightly injured at that performance, and I never went back.

It seemed to me that, unlike high-caliber circus aerialists, acrobats or virtuoso classical dancers, Streb’s crew was deliberately courting a bad outcome.

Now that Streb is big time — winning high-end awards, part of the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival — she bills herself as an Action Architect and only secondarily as a choreographer. Fair enough; her current show, “Streb vs. Gravity,” at the LaGuardia Drama Theater this weekend, has very little to do with dancing.

Her current performers are able athletes, if rarely elegant ones. They don’t so much throw caution to the winds as rely on deft timing. Still, that disturbing whiff of sadomasochism remains.

When they hurl themselves through the air, their grace is rugged at best. Their flight ends, purposely, in a thud. The chunky, heavily muscled bodies hit padded mats with a sound that conjures up the destruction of flesh and bone.

They balance on scarily tipping equipment that resembles instruments of torture. For a grand finale, complete with glaring light beamed into the spectators’ eyes, they use a giant turning Ferris wheel as a treadmill, splay their bodies on its spokes and pitch themselves off the structure to crouch at its base. It’s not clear here if the wheel is the performers’ plaything, or they are its prey.

Psychedelic Swirls

The whole entertainment, if you can call it that, is decked out to impress. Streb’s aesthetic, explored in the house program with fancy words about the human body’s face-off with gravity, is also flashed on the backdrop in catchy short takes, along with psychedelic swirls of color.

Relentless contemporary music occasionally gives way to snatches of classical bits mangled by the sound system.

Streb gives interviews in which she claims, no doubt sincerely, an intellectual underpinning for her work in physics, mathematics and philosophy.

Give me the circus artists or the ballet virtuosi any day. They put their fine-honed mastery at risk in the service of ecstasy — for themselves, I imagine, as well as their viewers. This act requires no justification whatsoever.

Streb Extreme Action performs at the LaGuardia Drama Theater, Amsterdam Avenue and 65th Street, July 14 and 15. Tickets: (1)(212) 721-6500. Information: (1)(212) 875-5766 or http://www.lincolncenter.org .

Chunky Move

The poet Marianne Moore called dancing “that most exposed form of self expression.” In his “I Want to Dance Better at Parties,” Gideon Obarzanek, artistic director of the vigorous and likable Australian troupe Chunky Move, takes Moore at her word.

Five real-life guys, participants in Obarzanek’s research for a documentary on men and social dancing, are introduced on videotape. Their attitudes, ranging from traumatic stasis to robust enthusiasm, thread through the work.

The men’s stories are endearing. The widower left to raise two young kids finally ventures back into social contacts via the ballroom. The spunky fellow devoted to communal Greek dance meets his lover in one of those proud, macho chain-dances, then loses him after a decade of devotion.

The Chunksters, as a Down Under journalist termed them, theatricalize the spoken messages with mime and vivid, live dancing: tap, folk, Latin, you name it.

Then trouble sets in. In each of the five “cases” as even an amateur psychologist would label them, the professional dancers segue into passages of abstract movement.

Inner Workings

This material is clearly meant to deepen the tales by revealing the inner workings of the men’s minds and hearts. Here, though, the choreography is limited largely to the flailing arms and claw-like hands of children imitating monsters, heavy breathing and gratuitous, kamikaze-like deeds.

The single exception is an odd and beautiful duet for two recumbent women. It reiterates profoundly the loss and grief so movingly proposed by Adam Wheeler, in the role of the chain dancer.

Of course the whole affair points out how the gift for dancing is cousin to a successful erotic life. But we knew that already.

In its 11-year existence, Chunky Move has toured worldwide to considerable acclaim. Last year, on only its second visit to New York (with “Tense Dave,” the production jointly contrived by Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin and Michael Kantor), the group copped a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award)

“I Want to Dance Better at Parties” isn’t up to that level, yet it shows why Chunky Move is so welcome. It does its stuff — both the humane and the obsessive, macabre stuff — with such oomph and good cheer.

Chunky Move performs at the Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., at 19th Street, through July 15. Information: (1)(212) 242-0800; http://www.joyce.org .

© 2006 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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