INTERVIEW | Elizabeth Streb, 65 and Still Walking Up Walls
Elizabeth Streb is an American choreographer, dancer, performer who has an insatiable passion for extreme action. She has been creating works from 1975 and is known for her outrageous risk-taking and the experimental shows she puts on. A multi-award winner Streb’s work is extremely demanding and necessitates endurance, dexterity, great physical strength and the ability to be daring. Her Company has been based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2003 where she established SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) which created a new outlet for the community where people could come and watch rehearsals and even participate in classes.
In 2012 Boris Johnson invited Streb to create a series of events in London as part of the Olympics Celebration. ‘One Extraordinary Day’ was an unprecedented spectacular with Streb and her Company dangling off the Millennium Bridge, performing an acrobatic dance whilst suspended from the tip of the London Eye, and walking down the outside of City Hall. The latter one that Streb herself took part in even though she was 64-years-old at the time.
This stunning event is the centrepiece of a new documentary BORN TO FLY: ELIZABETH STREB vs. GRAVITY that will unquestionably be one of THE highlights of the BFI Festival when it has its UK Premiere on March 20th at Southbank. It is an unmissable film, very much like the woman herself who Roger Walker-Dack caught up with her in New York recently when for at least 30 minutes she had her feet firmly on the ground,
RWD: Born in New York and as a very young woman you somewhat daringly hopped on a motorbike and headed right across the entire country to study contemporary dance in San Francisco for two years.
ES: I always loved the sound of motorcycles and I was just 15/16 years old when I got my first one. I came from a working-class family and had parents who always believed that if you had a dream and earned your keep that they would never step in your way, even if they did not like it. So I saved all my pennies and worked my way up to a Honda 350 and that’s the one that took me to SF.
I knew I wanted to go to the West Coast to practice and study with a major choreographer like Martha Jenkins. I also needed to figure out how to live in a city and earn enough money to pay bills and be able to keep dancing. I was also so young that I was so terrified that I would be led astray too (laughs)
RWD: Back in NY in 1974 you started your own Dance Company.
ES: I didn’t have my first one quite yet. I had to find a job to be able to live etc so that I could go into the studio alone and work on my solo work. In those days I was working mainly on techniques that were very influenced by the great Merce Cunningham. I was working on structure but I hadn’t yet gotten to the point where I became fixated with extreme action.
RWD: Were you pushing your performance to the edge then or was that a later thing?
ES: Much later Roger, then I was terrified, as I had absolutely no real idea what I was doing.
RWD: Unlike most choreographers, you actually went back to school to study physics, maths and philosophy to get a better understanding of the effects of movement on matter.
ES: I guess that is rare, but I didn’t do that until I was 47-years-old and after I had gotten the McArthur Foundation Award*. I went back to NYU thinking that this was a really good way to spend my Award money.
RWD: The movie covers your creation of POP ACTION for your SLAM Company in Brooklyn and what it encompasses, but I’m more interested in what drives you to not only to create but also to continually push the boundaries forward.
ES: I think I do it just as the scorpion said to the frog travelling across the stream when he got stung, after promising the frog he wouldn’t: it’s in my nature. Plus curiosity I guess, and the fact that I never want to repeat myself. I’m very interested in where action belongs, which has been somewhat of a puzzle for me and I have still to come to any real conclusions, however. I’m working on it.
RWD: When I first accosted you in P Town last summer I apologised for the fact that in my review of your movie I had identified you as a control freak. A necessity in your work where exact detail is crucial, but maybe not so much with your very sweet wife. Fair criticism?
ES: (laughs) I imagine so.
RWD: The scene of you micro-managing your dinner party still sticks in my head. (Laughing)
ES: Was I a control freak in that? (Laughing)
ES: It may be a character defect (laughs) but in my work, I am responsible for so many people so I am not casual about dealing with that in any way. My spouse Elizabeth is used to me I guess. (She is the daughter of Michael Flanders of Flanders and Swann: a famous British comedy duo from the 1950s & 1960s) She is not my wife as we are still holding out, but we’ve been together for 24 years.
RWD: That’s as good as married in my book.
ES: Well I think so too. When it comes to marriage, we just prefer to stand on the sidelines.
RWD: As the movie is having its premiere in London, let’s talk about ‘One Extraordinary Day’ your remarkable way of celebrating the London Olympics. How the hell did you persuade our Mayor to not only let you jump off the Millennium Bridge, hang suspended off the London Eye, and walk down the outside of The Gherkin, and then make him pay for it as well?
ES: (Laughing) It started with Ruth Mackenzie the director of the Cultural Olympiad and Justine Simmons of Mayor’s Cultural Commission who I had worked with before, and the idea just grew and grew. Looking back now, I do not know how we pulled it all off. It was totally crazy as we had to be close the Thames, close all the roads, get permission to get on the spokes on the London Eye, and to jump off the Millennium bridge. Even the cultural loving authorities of New York wouldn’t have even let us do anything of that magnitude.
RWD: The point that I want to stress is that you personally walked down the entire outside of City Hall when you are actually old enough to go inside and get your senior’s Bus Pass.
ES: (Laughing) That would be no fun. I stay in shape well enough to put myself in a position so that I can if I choose too let extreme things happen to me.
RWD: What did we Brits think about it?
ES: The really sad thing was that we were not allowed to advertise where, when or what. The Health and Safety people put their very big foot down and said NO! So it was a complete accident when people walked by and saw us at any of the seven sites. It did, however, make the front pages of every single newspaper in the UK, and several around the world too. As I say in the film when that extraordinary day was over ‘how can I ever one up that?’
RWD: Did we Brits say ‘Who is this crazy American?’
ES: (Laughs.) Before the event, there was some rumblings about why an American got such a huge commission but we were very careful to ensure that over half of the crew involved used were Brits
RWD: Will you never retire from performing Elizabeth?
ES: No, never! That is just not an option even though it is hard to predict the future. I do have a couple of ideas and I not sure if I can even survive them. One is to stand in the middle of an empty pool and with four firemen (or women) standing on each corner and aiming their hoses at me at the exact same moment when they turn them on at full force. I will stand there and see if I can handle the pressure of the water.
RWD: You know you are mad! (Both laughing)
ES: If I think there is something that I really want to so then I will do it. With me it’s not about moving or doing a movement it’s about letting something extreme happen to me
RWD: I believe we are going to see you back in the UK next year with another project.
ES: It’s called Cities of the World and I am working on it with the LIFT Festival in London for June 2016. It is an exciting new project made for cranes and London’s iconic industrial landscape and right now the focus of the project is around Kings Cross and Gas Holder Number 8. It is still very much a ‘work in progress’.
RWD: Finally Elizabeth, I always like to ask everyone ‘if there was a movie on your life that would get to play you’?
ES: Such a great question (laughing) I really don’t know. Halle Berry pops into my head but I am not sure why.
RWD: Because she played Catwoman?
ES: (Laughs) Can I have Angelique Jolie?
RWD: Of course.