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How to Become an Extreme Action Hero

My adventure in life began with action, and I know it will end with action.

At a young age I began to construct public moments for myself without asking for an audience. I thought I could garner the attention of passersby and loiterers, who might be tempted to watch if I paid attention to what was truly unusual. One morning up at Lake Ontario, where my adoptive family had a cottage in a local marina called Flanders, I saw a gaggle of men hovering over something and gesturing wildly. I was eight or so, by which time I was a trained fisherman. I pushed through the crowd and peered down. I saw a four-foot-long eel squirming all over the place in the horrible way snakes, their cousins, can. I saw that it had swallowed a hook. In fishermen’s parlance this is a drag because it means you lost your hook and are often forced to re-rig your entire pole.

Once I had forced myself into the center of the men, I bent down, took the eel in my left hand very close to its neck (if eels had necks, which they don’t; they are actually all neck), got close to the back of its jaw hinge, and squeezed. It opened its mouth and I stuck my entire hand, fingers first, down its gullet, searching around for the hook’s hard stem. I got my forefinger just inside the curve of the hook and pushed down hard. The hook got unhinged from the stomach of the eel and out it came. I threw the eel back down to the ground dramatically and handed the hook to one of the men. They screamed and cheered, and said, “That little boy got the hook out! Good fella!” I turned on my heel and walked away, glowing and glowing, hugely proud for hours after. I knew I would tell this story many times over in my future, but I also knew it was an experience that you had to be there for. I could never properly describe in words an event like that.

Another early physically intense memory was putting up a ceiling at our house on the lake. Leonard Streb, my adoptive father, built both our houses by himself, from stuff left over from various jobs (which has always reminded me of Johnny Cash’s lyric, “I’d get it one piece at a time / And it wouldn’t cost me a dime . . .”). One time, Leonard ran out of nails and asked me to stand on a ladder and hold up a part of the ceiling while he ran to get more materials. My hands were over my head in a parallel fifth position with the heels of my hands flexed hard against the Sheetrock. Minutes passed, but still no sound of his return. I remember thinking, what an asshole. He’s at some bar having a beer, thinking this is funny. If I had moved, the pieces he had put up would collapse. I was not going to let that happen.

Before long, my arms started shaking, my shoulders quivering. I started breathing heavily. I tried to name the sensations. I sensed the moments passing: it was authentic slow motion (another idea encased in the term adagio I grew to loathe in dance). I realized back then that there was no vocabulary for fire-in-the-sinews or rapid-quaking-of muscle- groups. I was experimenting with the application of force, what little I could exert upwards toward the surface I was holding, given my weight and height and generally small size. For some reason, I kept pushing up with new intensity. I would start to feel myself fail, then—Eureka!— there’d be a little bit more of me, way down inside. A few hours later he came back and was shocked to find me still there, not because he was impressed, but because he had forgotten all about the ceiling and me.

One time I burnt a big barn down to the ground. I didn’t mean to; I was playing with matches in the hay and it caught on fire. It was so magnificent I didn’t try to stop it. No one was hurt but it was quite a spectacle. I got a huge amount of attention that day; cars parked everywhere and people stood around to watch. I was interviewed by the police, who threatened to take me to juvenile court. I admitted it was my fault. I knew I shouldn’t lie, but I also knew I shouldn’t talk about the small, amazing pockets of fire, how their power excited me: something so tiny could wreak such havoc.

In 1968, after years of performing unspecific action in the world, I looked at the list of possible majors at the State University of New York in Brockport, New York, and chose dance. This seemed to be the perfect combo of art and movement. Rose Strasser, the chair of the dance department, interviewed me and noticed I had no dance credentials.

“What can you do?”

“Well, I can pick up any disco dance that comes along. I get the rhythm instantly and can teach it to all my high school girlfriends! Does that count?”

“No,” she said, “That has nothing whatsoever to do with dance.”

Twenty years later I came to realize that that might be exactly what is wrong with modern dance.

Four years after that moment, I got onto my Honda 350 and tore out of Rochester, New York, Easy Rider-style, with exactly $120 cash, which I earned from training as a mechanic in a gas station and pumping gas. I headed west to San Francisco, arriving there a mere thirty days and six thousand miles later, via New Orleans, Houston, Colorado Springs, and Albuquerque, with a few other stops along the way. To date, this was the most grueling physical act I ever performed. I am still vibrating from that journey.

In time, I knew my life had to be built in New York.

I moved to New York City in 1974 and got my first job at the Wild Mushroom Café on Bleecker Street. There I met a guy named James. I was introduced to him by another new friend, Jimmy Gambino. Jimmy was once a Golden Gloves champion, but had gotten into a bad drug habit and lost his legs. He walked with two canes and made a rhythmic sound as he came down the street. Part of the sound was his two artificial legs, not just the canes. I was scared of him, scared of that impending sound and what it signified. One time I found a booklet of American Express checks. I asked Jimmy to cash them in for me. I knew he knew people who could do this. He said, “No, Elizabeth. You don’t want to get mixed up in that.” I completely thought I did, but I trusted him to know better, and didn’t ask twice.

So James was the “block guy” on Bleecker Street. He had access to cheap apartments, from $110 to $225 a month. If you put down a key deposit of a couple hundred dollars, you could get a lease. This was prime property in New York City. It still is. This was an early clue to New York real estate: it mattered who you knew. Those with their hands on the strings of power were not always behind a desk. They often wandered around the streets where you would least expect to find powerful, influential people.

When I first began working at restaurants, I knew I wasn’t ready to begin as a cook. Sure, I could read a recipe 9 and make a meal. But could I read it in five seconds, make it in ten, and do it absolutely consistently night after night? Could I take the pressure? I needed training first.

So I started as a porter, which basically meant I got up very early to clean restaurants before they opened for business and before my daily 10 a.m. dance class. At one point, I was whizzing on my bicycle to clean three restaurants in downtown New York first thing in the morning. It was a terrible introduction to the trade. At one restaurant, every white shelf was literally covered in rat footprints every morning. Few things unnerved me, but this did. I was relieved when I felt ready to cook. Before long, I had a shift every night of the week. I was making thirty dollars a night. Still, cooking was about the efficiency, accuracy, and exactness of events. It was about being able to stand the heat, literally and figuratively. In small kitchens such as the ones I worked in, the menu is divided up into various cooking zones: stovetop, oven, broiler, and cold station. I worked all these zones at once. It was not unusual for me to cook 150 dinners by myself in one night.

For some reason I remember one night, after many years in the restaurant business, I was walking to work at Charlie and Kelly’s on West Fourth Street. I had tears in my eyes, thinking, oh, oh my dream of being a choreographer may not work out. I may have to work in restaurants forever! I was thirty-five years old already, and I was just being realistic. But then I thought, okay, so what. I can live with that. If that is my fate, aren’t I better off than most people in the world? I was feeling sorry for myself, which is why the moment stands out for me. Of course, I didn’t have to work in restaurants forever, and I’ve been able to dedicate myself to choreography full-time for many years. And I might as well state the obvious: it’s much easier to be successful than to struggle through a horrible job. But that doesn’t mean you discover more in your life. The information I got working as a restaurant cook added to my knowledge of movement, and enhanced my lexicon, even if it wasn’t being recorded, and even if no one important noticed me….

Birth of STREB

My dance company STREB began with a dream of flight, rugged and rough, downward-bound, dealing with true space, the sky, an area above the ground. Our aspirations are subject to the problem of how to get up into the air, then manage the land, which is just below the sky’s southern edge and what is immutable: the end of space, the hegemony of the bottom, the savagery of the ground. Impact is a primal and primitive practice we at STREB accept: the full, weighted human body, with its issues of vectors and forces and angles of incidence and choices that are incurred in a flash of an instant, yet determine everything. Our spirits rise a half second before the ground-rush intersects with our body, our blood, and our bones.

Everything about STREB Extreme Action concerns the search for what in the world might constitute a real move. We are not trying to invent something that already exists: we are trying to locate, define, and recognize new, invisible, uncontrollable physical phenomena. Defining the real move is our holy grail, and we know that it has properties that may hold certain surprises, certain secrets that might be alarming and dangerous. Our job is to present extreme action events on earth in the artificial places called theaters; we feel a responsibility and an interest in contributing to the action lexicon that hasn’t yet been built to enrich the language of movement. In linguistics, a lexicon means the complete set of meaningful units in a language. That is what we want our movement lexicon to include. We want to determine which parts of action are meaningful, and what determines meaning in movement.

A Real Move

What is a real move? Let’s accept that a real move has three most basic, elemental ingredients—time, space, and body— these three combine to become movement and are jiggled into existence by invisible forces. What, then, is the difference between regular movement and a real move? There are a number of ways I believe they can be distinguished: a real move has the power and depth to create a movement archetype. These archetypes are made up of motion first, rhythm second, and image third. They exist as powerfully as narrative or aural archetypes do, but they currently go unnoticed. (I believe these archetypes or memories are stored at the cellular level—chemically, muscularly, and maybe even in the marrow of our bones and in the endings of our nerves.) These memories are not necessarily recalled in a linear or narrative manner. They instead whack into us like a bolt of a new sort of recognition. We can’t necessarily call them up at will; they have to be excavated, exploded out of us. But I contend that these hidden memories or forgotten sensations are an important aspect of where the content, or meaning, of the movement as a form resides. Along with the true rhythm of action, these memories are instead physical, temporal, and spatial. They won’t sound or look or smell or feel like normal memories or stories; that is not the nature of movement. I don’t believe I have ever experienced a story from movement, but I’ve experienced much more. Movement is a powerful engraver, not a reference maker or a temporal mimicking machine (as in dance done according to music). All of this is to say that events or dances need to be experienced in time. It is difficult to convey to another person the nature of an experience of a real move or an action event. To really know, you had to be there in order to have the experience. I can tell you my eel story, but it’s not the same as seeing me take the swallowed hook out of its gullet, and it’s definitely not the same as actually doing it.

Let me first define my terms. What exactly do I mean by the term “real”? I have thought about using the word “true” or even “pure” instead of real (they are all apt adjectives), but I believe true is a more clouded term than real, and pure gets into difficult Kantian a priori territory. To quote the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: “Kant’s critique concerns pure reason because Kant believes these determinations about space and time can be made a priori, i.e., such that their justification does not depend on any particular course of experience (pure and a priori are thus usually interchangeable).”1 While some would argue that human movement is parallel to Kant’s idea of experience, I would suggest that it simply is experience.

Something that is real has no referents, no need to assign it with any true or false statements. It simply is. This is the reason why I refer to a “real move” rather than a “pure move” or a “true move.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines real as “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” From the same source, the philosophic definition of real is, “relating to something as it is, not merely as it may be described or distinguished . . . of a substance or a thing, not imitation or artificial, genuine; true or actual.” If something is pure, the same source claims, “it is not mixed or adulterated with any other substance or material; without any extraneous and unnecessary elements, free of any contamination.” This word pure seems better suited to the quality of a material substance (referring to drinking water, say) or to intentions, not to a phenomenon that is magical, radical, invisible, and embedded in each of our moments (no movement, no life).

If something is true, philosophers concerned with ontological systems of hierarchy have developed deep methodologies to ascertain its “trueness.” True, justified belief is the classical definition of knowledge, for example (this was true at least until Gettier came along in the 1960s). But the appropriate question here is not whether a movement is true in the sense that the word is used in relation to language and meaning. True pertains well to language but is not well-suited to the assessment of movement. Suzanne Guerlac asks: “What happens when we try to consider real movement intellectually? We find that our thought is not cut out for the task. Thinking in time, Bergson writes, will always be incommensurable with language, which crushes duration through its very iterative structure. We repeat the same word to name a variety of things at different moments, when, in actuality, nothing ever occurs in exactly the same way twice.”2 Certainly this is true when considering movement.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the deepest idea of movement through language. For example, when a critic begins her paragraph with, “This is what happened . . .” or “This is what they did,” you know she is missing the point. It isn’t what the dancer did descriptively, rather it’s what happened to her, and how (in what manner) she did what she did that holds the critical factors of meaning in movement. The phenomenological experience of this happening or this series of movements was transferred to the viewers in an automatic fashion. The experience of the audience, or the witnesses, may never correlate with the intention of the choreographer. This experience, by its very nature, is not purely mental or emotional. There is no doubt a missing vocabulary for writing about movement as subject. I once asked a critic to call the moves by their sounds, to make up words to expand the vocabulary of movement, the way film and architecture and music and math have their own terms. Words and sounds such as swook, swack, whiktok, rackedt, thwack, and kaboom that feel and sound like a move. She said that her editor would fire her; I thought, then let it be.

A move is real if it is irreducible, only itself; if it possesses certain fundamental properties that can be classified. Among those possible properties: it does not seek an alternate meaning; it is a verb; it does; it acts. It does not refer to another idea, or a historic time other than right now, the present tense, this moment that will soon be over. Real movement isn’t pretending. Real movement doesn’t try to tell a story. It doesn’t merely indicate. It is not about anything, separate from itself. Historically, movement in dance has performed one of three tasks: it fits itself to music (in a move-to-note manner), it tries to express emotion as a primary effort, and it attempts to tell a story. These three activities render action artificial. Choreographers have a responsibility to consider what their discipline—movement—can do that is exclusive to the domain of movement as a language unlike any other. Words are very good at telling a story and so people write books with them. Generally, writers don’t cut words out of the page and fling them around the room in front of a live audience. They do not try to make their words dance, not literally anyway. Yet we try to make our moves tell a story. Ridiculous. Over time, filmmakers have worked to understand the function of film: what can film do differently from, say, photographs? Filmmakers can speed up and slow down the passage of events or time. Photos alone cannot do this. Film also has the capacity to make images very large or very small, it can tell stories in a non-narrative way, it can go backward in time. Film directors can also control the audience’s angle of viewing in infinite ways. True live-time events or theatrical presentations cannot lend themselves to this type of magic.

Music

Music as a field contends with sounds that often come out of invented contraptions like the piano, the horn, and the guitar, just as our STREB action comes out of invented con- traptions—the fly machine, the gizmo, vertical walls—but for different ends. Action is not currently treated as its own subject because what movement itself does best has been severely underinvestigated and not noticed. There is not yet a “moveical” form (in the way that there are musicals or dramas). The fields of drama, music, film, literature, and architecture all have deeply investigated forms, each with their very own nomenclature, a nomenclature that movement currently lacks. Movement is treated philosophically and historically as a stepchild to these other disciplines. In the ensuing chapters, I will elucidate why I believe this is true and various ways this problem can be addressed.

When my life partner, Laura Flanders, turned forty a few years ago, I wanted to give her a supreme and symbolic gift. I conceived of a fire dance, a conceptual one. I named it “BlazeAway.” It was performed to a Melissa Etheridge song with the lyric, “I’m the only one who’d walk across the fire for you.”

A fire was lit as large as the square my hips outlined. The idea was to walk up to the fire along a narrow lane, just long enough so that by the time I got to the blaze it would be quite large. I crouched down and flew into the air, making a very large horizontal X with my body, arms, and legs, and landed dead center on the flame. It was supposed to go out. But when I looked under my stomach and stood up, I realized that I was on fire, fully ablaze. All one hundred guests stared at me; in fact, my best friend Danita continued to take pictures of the event. I looked down and thought I had NEVER seen anything happen so fast. Fire was climbing upwards and burning through my clothes. I patted it, but it was not going to be snuffed out. It got bigger and bigger, faster and faster . . . I thought that in about a half second my hair would torch and I would ruin my girlfriend’s birthday party.

My company has a “call and response” system for when something goes terribly wrong. The entire team has the responsibility to call out a command to amend the situation. Whoever calls out first, everyone must obey; it is the only possible fixer to a physical emergency. In this moment, I was on fire, and one of the dancers screamed out, “Take it off!” We all interpreted this to mean, remove all my clothes. Very quickly, one of my dancers grabbed the cuffs of my pants while I jumped high. They pulled hard, and my pants were off. I ran out of the room throwing my shirt behind me. 29

By this time in my life I was a professional choreographer, but in that moment, I was more in touch with my youthful experiments. I knew this was going too far. This came too close to a movement doing me in. Yet it invoked the genesis of my purpose. I didn’t want to do things safely, I didn’t want to be careful. I wasn’t sorry. This could have been an instance after which I might have regretted that impulse. But I didn’t. I escaped.

I wasn’t hurt much, just a four-inch square burn on my thigh. I remember feeling the burning while I was on fire, and feeling surprised that I, too, was susceptible to being burned, just like everyone else on earth. I realized that I could literally burn to the ground. This moment was an amalgam of everything I had done before, a perfect symbol for the dramatic physical moment I’ve wanted to achieve.

Walking around New York City the next day, I felt like a hero. I had gone further than taking a hook out of an eel’s stomach. I had been on fire.

fI looked at complete strangers on the street and thought, you don’t realize this, but yesterday I was on fire. How far am I willing to go? What line will I cross to make an extreme action moment? What am I willing to do? Is there anything I would not be willing to do? I realized then that the bigger challenge is to imagine these moves, these moments. Once I envision them, I know I will do them. I would only be limited by my lack of imagination. That would be the only potential threat to my experiments.

This is the first chapter (minus a section on Real Estate, with some vivid passages about rats)  of ELIZABETH STREB’s marvelous,  just published How To Become an Extreme Action Hero, with foreword by Anna Deavere Smith, and Intro by Peggy Phelan, publisjed by The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Published by permission, copyright, ELIZABETH STREB.

ELIZABETH STREB founded Streb Extreme Action Company in 1985. She established S.L.A.M. (Streb Lab for ASction Mechanics) in 2003, a factory space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which produces a cottage industry of extreme action performances and invites everyday people to wonder about movement, gravity and flight.

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