Compagnie Transe Express performing during the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in 2011. Photo courtesy Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
There's a lot to take in over the 11 days of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, from Ann Carlson's Doggie Hamlet (five dancers, three dogs, lots of sheep) to Elizabeth Streb's SEA (Singular Extreme Actions), both local premieres. One that will be tough to miss: a nightly performance by French troupe Compagnie Transe Express of Cristal Palace, a world premiere in which more than 50 performers will create a nearly 40-foot human chandelier, topped by musicians. May 31–June 10. kimmelcenter.org/pifa.
Although she constantly pushesthe level of risk in her work, Streb Extreme Action Company artistic director Elizabeth Streb surprisingly looks for more than just a passion for physicality when recruiting dancers action heroes. We went to S.L.A.M (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) to get an inside look at a rehearsal, and quickly learned that though she may have an addiction to danger, Streb isn't quite as tough as she seems.
A sense of teamwork is really clear amongst your dancers when they are working. How is that something you have tried to instill in your company environment?
You have to be a team in this work or you are in big trouble. It certainly wasn't like that in the beginning. So this was an end game for a very incremental process. I figured out how to have people who love people in the room. It's a very pacific concept but it's a humane concept. And as we went along we realized it's our job to be socially kind and interested in anyone who walks in the room.
Speaking of which, your rehearsals are all open to the public. Is that something you have always been interested in doing?
When we moved from the Canal Street studio to garages in Williamsburg they were all on the ground floor, so we started practicing what it meant to invite the community in and let people who walk by and don't know Streb come in and be interested in watching us. And that's changed my set of questions and has changed who I'd like our public to be.
Photo by Teresa Wood
The level of risk in your work heightens each year. How do you visualize that risk in the beginning stages of a new work?
There's this great quote from Tim Cahill that says "the explorer is the person who is lost," so I don't pretend to know what I'm doing. I have an idea—is it the spinning ladder idea? Is it the high speed windshield idea? In any of those circumstances where we try to create a sense on unfamiliarity in the space, I don't really pre-amp ideas. If I know before I see it then it's happened before.
When you're performing with a whirling cinderblock or giant hamster wheel as your partner, there is no time for second-guessing your physical fitness. Fortunately, STREB EXTREME ACTION member Cassandre Joseph knows exactly what her body needs to stay safe, even when flying off 30-foot platforms.
What are the five habits that prepare her to tackle anything that director Elizabeth Streb might throw her way?
To create great work, choreographers need the freedom to tackle difficult subjects and push physical limits. But when your instruments are human beings, is there a limit to how far you should go? Five choreographers open up about where they draw the line.