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Streb dancers, collaborating with UC Berkeley physical sciences professors, experiment with movement in pilot project
28 February 2001

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations


Elizabeth Streb

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb poised upon the "catastrophic realizer."
Photo by Peg Skorpinski

UC Berkeley architecture student Matthew Stromberg discusses equipment design
Berkeley - An experimental dance troupe is in residence at the University of California, Berkeley, this week, blending into its art the antics of Evil Knievel, the strength and grace of professional acrobats, and a dose of academia.

Not only did internationally-renowned choreographer Elizabeth Streb meet personally with UC Berkeley physical sciences professors to pick their brains about movement and action, she also was inspired by the conversations to design far-out equipment for the current dance lab.

One result was a 25-foot-long "catastrophic realizer," a steel, wood and aluminum device that resembles a giant teetertotter and allows dancers - sans helmets, knee pads or other safety gear - to "air surf, " cutting vertical and horizontal swaths through the air.

"A dream machine, I call it," said Streb, the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant in 1997. "Everyone wants one. You can see how smoothly it moves. It's got ball bearings all over the place."

A New Yorker participating at UC Berkeley in the National Dance Lab pilot project, Streb is tapping four of her eight regular dancers and three students from UC Berkeley's Center for Theater Arts.

Her dancers' efforts, always viewed as works in progress, involve speed, climbing, falling, diving, rolling, plunging, jumping and trying to fly.

"We really don't believe in being right side up on our feet," said Streb.

Their props typically include trampolines, dance floors, climbing walls, towering structures, Rube Goldberg-like devices and thick floor mats. Streb has said that art is artificial, and discoveries require "going too far."

A gymnasium at the red-brick First Congregational Church of Berkeley, a block from campus, serves as a studio for the downright wild exploration of movement by the dancers.

UC Berkeley professors in mathematics, civil engineering, architecture, physics and chemistry gave Streb a tour of a university earthquake facility and talked with her about abstract ideas relating to physical space, the continuity - or discontinuity - of time, chemical properties, gravity, the trajectory of bodies shot into space, and crashing impacts.

"When I took a look at some of the material distributed to the people invited to meet with Elizabeth Streb, I saw she was interested in doing things that seemed impossible. And when I met her, she confirmed that," said Leon Henkin, professor emeritus of mathematics at UC Berkeley.

Indeed, Streb wrestles comfortably with challenges like illustrating the discontinuity of motion, asking what happens when something moves so fast it stands still, or showing what happens when elements combine to trigger an explosion.

"I am completely obsessed with how you illustrate that (the explosion) theatrically and make it as wondrous as it is," Streb said. "But you have to start somewhere. Sometimes it's as good as you can do, and wonder of wonder, you come up with things you could not imagine."

Streb's conversations with the UC Berkeley professors and with Matthew Stromberg, a former Streb dancer who is now a UC Berkeley architecture student, resulted in equipment designed and produced for this week's lab:

* The catastrophic realizer, a type of I-beam teetertotter that bounces up and down - and spins like a merry-go-round. The equipment has industrial-looking handlebars and platforms where dancers perch to air surf;

* A bungee cord with leather harnesses at each end designed to "hold" dancers while they explore the space separating one performer from the other;

* A Lego-like, wooden "kit of parts" created by Stromberg in a directed study with Harrison Fraker, dean of UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, to use in an exploration and creation of environments and space; and

* A 1-meter disc that spins to demonstrate the "chaos theory." It was provided by Alex Pines, a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry, and Lonnie Martin, supervisor of the campus's chemistry demonstration lab.

Henkin said this is the first time he's been consulted on a dance project. Recalling his awkward introduction to dance as a teenager, he said, "But once I saw how life expanded through dance, I wanted to see it all." Lessons in modern dance, folk dance and ballet followed.

Although admittedly a bit confused by the lack of music accompanying the dance lab work of Streb, Henkin said he is anxious to see the dancers in action.

Streb, a speaker at a NASA space agency convention in 1997, hopes the project helps lend systemization and rigor often absent from the whimsical world of art. She also will incorporate movement discoveries and insights from the lab in "Actionheroes," her current work/event. After just a day, she said she felt so energized and excited by experimenting without deadlines and performance pressures that she wanted to stay up and work, rather than sleep.

This second phase of the National Dance Lab, dubbed "Lab Notes Volume 2: Live" concludes with a final showing and a question-and-answer session with Streb and the dancers this Friday (March 2).

Founding partners in the lab, which was launched last fall, include UC Berkeley, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, New England Foundation for the Arts and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The lab is designed to give choreographers the chance to pursue collaborative research without having to perform, while creating a forum for the public to observe and contribute to the work.

Evaluation of the two-part program may lead to future labs and expand to new host sites.