October 22, 2009

The Institute of

Contemporary Art
Boston, MA

October 22–25, 2009

Reviewed by Theodore Bale


Super Position. Courtesy Ashmont Media.

“Action architect” Elizabeth Streb doesn’t bury her work in mystery or illusion. On the contrary, as she explains in her program notes, her daring performers invent “action ideas which we think are archetypal, noticeable, [and] understandable.” In the evening-length program “BRAVE,” this included scenes in which her “actioneers” (not dancers) were just millimeters away from getting smashed in the face with a swinging cinder-block or a long steel beam.


Wondering whether somebody is going to be injured—or even killed—relates to the darkest recesses of primitive memory. In this way, Streb’s aesthetic leaves no viewer behind. When the performers are not subject to such dangers, they defy as many laws of physics and biomechanics as they can manage. Consequently there is an odd splendor to the work, rooted in a kind of triumph over the physical universe.


“BRAVE” opens with the actioneers slamming against a plexi-glass wall at the center of a large turntable. As each one falls backwards, VJ/DJ Zaire Baptiste hits the crash button on his synthesizer to augment and amplify the sound of the spine hitting the mat. Crash and Slide is a series of back flips and other jumps, punctuated by pile-ups or an occasional defiant arabesque. The odor of sweat wafts into the house during Squirm, as a man navigates through seven other bodies packed into a clear coffin-sized box. Falling is just that—off a slowly ascending scaffold; perhaps the metaphor here is lemmings in migration. The first act concludes with the most intriguing event, Artificial Gravity, where the actioneers walk, jump, and balance on concentric turntables running at different speeds and directions. This scene is further developed in the second half in Airlines, in which a Mondrian-like scaffold permits the ensemble to move vertically in rectangular patterns. These captivating episodes evoked the subtle organization of pedestrian traffic that one might find at an amusement park.

Throughout the evening the audience was stoked to make as much noise as possible, to emerge from any indifference and cheer on these seemingly crazy actioneers like favored newcomers in a wrestling championship. By the finale, Super Position, which unfolded on an enormous yellow gerbil wheel with pendulum, it became apparent that extreme sound is as important to Streb as motion and gravity. All of the events were like military drills, with shouted commands the indispensable coordinating factor. And David Van Tieghem’s music kept the heart of both performer and witness racing.