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Review: Time Machine at Her Majesty’s Theatre

Review by Lisa Lanzi


For over forty years, Elizabeth Streb and STREB EXTREME ACTION from Brooklyn NY have performed in theatres of all sizes, undertaken residencies at top art museums and attractions (like the London Eye), and taken work into streets and stadiums.  This event is billed as ‘dance’ in the Adelaide Festival program.  It isn’t dance as you might know or imagine it.  The work is a fusion of gymnastics, acrobatics, sport, and circus.  Streb has worked long and hard to redefine her interest and output, aiming to “… create work that speaks of and to intrinsic human potential…”, and asks ““how can movement elicit sorrow, fright, humour, excitement and the desire to live a better life – all at once.”  Streb’s work has been described as “more NASCAR than modern dance; more boxing than ballet”.


The audience including many school groups were, for the most part, entertained by Time Machine and though I am all for experiment and some iconoclastic culture-changing energy, my artist’s soul wasn’t fully captured by the show.  Awed, impressed, gob-smacked, yes.  Captivated by and admiring of the performers’ talent, their chemistry, and ‘star quality’, yes. Yet as an inclusion in an Arts Festival, Time Machine left me wanting; although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with performance as an entertaining distraction.  I was reminded of Happenings - the forerunners of performance art culture.  These ‘events’ emerged from the theatrical elements of Dada and Surrealism, the name first used by the American artist Allan Kaprow in the title of his 1959 work staged at a New York gallery: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts.  The Streb company also appeared at WOMAdelaide this year, and I can believe that stumbling upon this group in such a context would be a perfect diversion, full of fun and wonder.


As a performer, Elizabeth Streb has dived through glass, allowed a ton of dirt to fall on her head, walked down the outside of buildings, and set herself on fire, among other feats of extreme action.  Winner of many prestigious accolades including the MacArthur “Genius” Award, choreographer and ‘Action Architect’ Streb founded STREB Extreme Action Company in 1979.  In 2003, she established SLAM, the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn.  It seems Streb bases her exploration on one question:  “why can’t we do that?”.  In her 2018 TED Talk, she expounds on her fascination/obsession with wanting to fly and a time of experimentation on her own body finally realising that to fly successfully means learning how to land.  


Time Machine presents a limited retrospective of Streb’s work.  It is episodic with much rearranging of the stage in between the jaw-dropping stunts.  All the work is based on daring, split second, precision movement.  Each segment in Time Machine includes props or ‘machines’.  Over the years Streb has researched and invented her prototypic machines that propel and induce the performers to go higher, faster, further, sooner.  Both before the show and between the acts we hear recorded voiceover quotes from Streb and various interrogators or reviewers, thoughts or questions that have been posed.  There is an onstage ‘DJ’ adding backing tracks and as the performers thud to the very thick mat, that sound is amplified by in situ boundary microphones, each extreme action landing becoming a visceral punctuation mark. 

 

The astonishing performers known as ‘action heroes’ are costumed in ‘pop art scrawl’ upon primary red and yellow, black and white skin tight body suits accentuating impressive muscularity.  Throughout the hour-long event, the action heroes called out moves to each other and cheered and whooped as they watched each other.  These strident calls were a combination script and instruction manual, and possibly for safety as well:  “on”, “off”, “step, step, sit”, “lunge”, “line”, “around”, and so on, certainly adding to the entertainment value.  The audience too joined the party, applauding at the finish of each feat, gasping in awe or anticipation, and cheering.  As each segment finished another voiceover would expound upon the action we had just witnessed, for example: “I wanted to make a dance about geometry” or “a tribute to the heroes of slapstick - The Three Stooges”.  Thus we saw and heard a history of Streb’s experimentation plus experienced the daring results.


Streb notes “I question the rate, speed and all the invisible forces that cause movement to happen. Action is the message.”  This artist’s legacy is curiosity and the tasks of embracing danger and pushing physical boundaries.  The performers who work so closely with her obviously have enormous trust, conviction, and dedication.  They truly are extraordinary athletes.


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