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Ringside Inc. Gets High on Risky ‘Airwork’

Elizabeth Streb has always had a knack for daredevil stunts, like wrecking motorcycles or downhill skiing a la James Bond, but it wasn’t until she’d been going to dance and theater for years that she decided she wanted to fly.

“The top half of the proscenium is never occupied,” she complains, referring to what she’d see at those staid affairs. “I kept wondering why they didn’t drop the teaser curtain or something. It’s like a painter stretching a canvas and only painting on the bottom half.”

So soar she does, not over tall buildings or faster than speeding bullets, but with a little help from harnesses, platforms and assorted devices.

At 38, she’s a New Age Icarus who would gladly lose the riggings, she says, if only she’d still be able to negotiate “space in the manner the equipment allows. My ultimate belief is that we would be able to achieve techniques and then take the equipment away.”

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The recent Bessie (New York Dance and Performance) award winner and her five-member company are bringing this aided-flight and other kinesthetic feats to Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Tuesday, where they’ll offer a workshop--and then perform their four-part “Airwork,” Thursday through Saturday.

Although the daring young woman on the flying trapeze takes glee in the circus connotation of her troupe’s moniker--Ringside Inc.--the point of the choreography is anything but the greatest of ease. Theirs is an aesthetic of risk, in which the goal is to go beyond the all-too-human limitations of gravity and muscular strength.

Challenge and danger are so prominent in Streb’s architectonic designs that one might suspect there’s more to her obsession than aesthetics. Is it dance for dance’s sake, or is all this striving symbolic of some ideological position about the nature of human endeavor?

“It is about itself,” Streb retorts with the conviction of a Formalist. “It’s not about poverty or emotionalism. I’m not trying to express anything beyond the belief that the movement is all-expressive . . . that it has the power to contain everything.”

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Despite Streb’s disavowal of any topical or political content in her work, she does concede that it illustrates her philosophy of life.

Her particular politics despise complacency and extol the virtues of walking on the wild side. “I have a certain discomfiture with achieving a bourgeois attitude toward existence. If you’re on the edge, you’re more awake and alert. Any time you settle into something the danger of unawareness pops up.”

So this pioneer must continually expand her own horizons and booby-trap the confrontational terrain she has created for herself. “I don’t trust myself to be conscious if I’m not slightly in an imbalanced state,” she says. “I carry that into the work and address it as an issue, slightly away from what would be a comfort zone for me.”

This continual challenge, she explains, enables her to grow as a dancer. “The unhabitual occupation of space forces me to come up with very accurate movement vocabularies, rather than becoming inundated with cliche.”

Streb bristles at the memory of her years of dance indoctrination. “It’s very hard to override the technique you’ve been trained with--close to impossible,” she cautions, obviously pumped up at the prospect of challenge. “So I set up physical situations that are precarious and have elements of impossibility to them.”

Near impossibility and peril come to mind, for example, when dancers jump in quick succession like lemmings from a 15-foot platform. The choreography has to happen in the air during the second between leap and landing.

Similarly, dancers whirling and twirling on a 12-by-15-foot scaffold in “Airlines” can’t always see each other for cues and have to rely on what Streb calls “self-timing” and intuition to know when to move.

Unlike athletes who aim for particular goals such as winning, money or an Olympic medal, there is no immediate reward for Streb’s Ringsiders. It appears to observers--despite what Streb points out is a “very specific” plan--that the dancers are allowed respite from their never-ending workout only when they’re spent of energy.

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Streb works are never the same twice: the performers’ prowess increases, but the potential for them to botch a move remains. However, the consequent uncertainty translates into excitement and the high, so to speak, of discovery.

In fact, Streb self-confidently assures us that it’s this unforeseeable element that makes the dance so compelling. “There is error in the work, so that what the audience ends up seeing is actual endeavor and sometimes failure.”

Safe work would be as meaningless and boring to Streb as she feels it would be for the audience. “I don’t see what would be the point in asking an audience to come in and see something I’ve had the privilege to spend a year practicing so that I’m very good at it,” Streb asserts. “That’s not my idea of performance.”


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