Nothing looks effortless in Elizabeth Streb's vision of dance. You don't get light-as-fairy-dust ballerinas when you combine modern dance, gymnastics, ballet and stunt work.
In a piece called "Crash," dancers fly, but they land with a slam, their bodies horizontal. Microphones in the stage equipment pick up every grunt and thud and "hup!" Then the dancers bounce back up, ready to soar again.
STREB company members also run on an enormous hamster wheel and dive to dodge swinging cement blocks. Trying to defy the laws of nature means taking risks.
"If you're a body in space and time, get up off the ground! What are you doing hanging around on the ground?" Streb says.
Streb calls her dancers "action engineers." They're also teachers, working with kids and holding public rehearsals. Now for the first time, the 24-year-old Brooklyn dance company is including a group of non-company members in a performance. When STREB takes the stage at Stanford University on Jan. 24 to present its 2006 work "STREB vs. Gravity," 11 Stanford dancers and gymnasts will join in, performing the work's "Crash" segment.
Elizabeth Streb came to Stanford last year, meeting with gymnastics, dance and Stanford Lively Arts officials to arrange a deeper connection with community members than just performing for them. As a result, the company will be on campus for a weeklong residency. STREB members will teach master classes for Stanford dance students; Streb will give a public talk on Jan. 22; and the "Crash" dancers will give a preview of the work at a Jan. 22 gymnastics meet.
The effort is a chance for students to work with seasoned professionals, and it's also a welcome partnership between athletics and the arts, says Stanford dance lecturer Diane Frank, who is directing the "Crash" rehearsals.
The four-minute "Crash," she says, is an adventurous work that "asks complete physical commitment" of the Stanford dancers. They work on a narrow floor built with springs and a mat, running and bounding in solo and group elements of the piece. Elements have evocative names, such as "Smackdown," "I'm A Bird Now," "Monster Truck" and "Ninja Turtles."
At a recent rehearsal at Stanford's Roble Gym, Liz Tricase shouts to her cohorts, "Dancers, ready?"
"Ready!" the rest chorus. And they're off.
The piece is filled with sound. Not only will audience members be able to hear the thumps of impact, but they'll also hear shouted calls and responses, as dancers let the others know that they are ready for a new move. A lot of this piece is about timing — which is especially evident when Brittiany Broadwater jumps into a flip high above another performer's head, seemingly just missing him.
One element after another whips by without a break, but when it's over several of the dancers seem energized, not drained. Frank looks pleased. "Everything's starting to have more air," she says. "That looked really great."
The Stanford dancers began learning the piece last fall, when two STREB members came to California. Not all of the local performers have a gymnastics background; some have more expertise in modern dance or tap. To get used to the feeling of impact, the students started with activities such as slapping their chest and thighs, and falling straight down from a push-up position.
"Crash" landings might have hurt at first, but over time the students learned to do the moves with enjoyment. The landings are easier if you tighten your core muscles the right way and commit your whole body to the move, master's student Lauri Anderson says. "The simplicity of a 'table dive' is really fun. It's the most like flying," she says.
Another participant, Aimee Rolston, graduated from Stanford last year after competing there as a gymnast for four years (as Aimee Precourt). She says she enjoys the STREB project because it gives her the chance to work with a team on a project; gymnasts typically train on their own.
"Crash" is the second segment in the evening-length "STREB vs. Gravity," which also incorporates such props as the hamster wheel, cinder blocks and a giant half-circle that rocks with dancers on top. It's set to percussive music with a DJ on stage. In total, the show travels with a 53-foot truck and some 13 tons of equipment.
Frank calls the piece exciting. "Performers are constantly challenging their relationship to the environment," she says. "It's the actual, real challenge of reaching an extreme point of movement. ... (And) it's very beautiful, the way that it unfolds."
In a phone interview, Streb says part of the joy of creating these pieces is trying to explore the limits of natural laws that govern gravity, momentum and acceleration. And those laws are still surprising her, even though she's a seasoned dancer with a host of honors, including a 1997 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award.
"I'm 58 and I've been doing this for a long time," she says. "So many times I'll be on a piece of equipment and think, 'If this person jumps this way, this'll happen,' but it doesn't."
Streb says she tries to create works that will appeal to all ages and also all walks of society.
"I came from the working-class world, and the vocabulary comes out of this world," she says. "That's why we'll have cement blocks and a hamster wheel. People who have those kinds of backdrops understand the work in this show."
Streb's use of the performers' sounds is also a way of allowing audiences to connect with the programs, to experience the sweat and strain that goes into them. And the risk.
"The risk issue is something all of the dancers in this company agree to when they walk in this room. If you're going to be a movement artist, you're going to get hurt," she says. "If you push your capabilities, you're going to learn your boundaries by going a little beyond what you can do."
What: The Streb dance company performs the piece "STREB vs. Gravity" with Stanford dancers.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 24, with a shortened family matinee (without Stanford dancers) at 2:30 p.m. that day
Cost: The evening performance is $25-$60 for adults and $12.50-$30 Stanford students. The matinee is $15-$48/$7.50-$24.
Info: Other events include: a public lecture by Elizabeth Streb at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22 in the Cantor Arts Center auditorium, and a "Crash" preview by Stanford dancers also at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22, at the Stanford gymnastics meet in Burnham Pavilion. For details, go to livelyarts.stanford.edu. The box office is at 650-725-ARTS.