Get to Know Brockport's Most "Extreme" Alumna
Elizabeth Streb’s journey to becoming an award-winning choreographer of extreme action started with a motorcycle, disco, high-school sports, and a just-launching dance department at the College.
Acclaimed choreographer Elizabeth Streb does extreme things.
In her late forties, she dove through a glass wall — attempting to land before the shattered glass did. Another time, Streb had one ton of dirt dumped on her head while other dancers dove through walls of glass around her. In a performance celebrating her partner’s birthday, she accidentally lit herself on fire.
“I didn’t mean to be on fire, that was a misdirection of my idea,” she laughed. Streb added that no one rushed to her aid, likely because they were either in shock or thought she planned it.
“That's the fastest, fastest thing I’ve ever encountered in terms of speed,” she said.
Streb is a MacArthur grant recipient. She has earned a Guggenheim fellowship and multiple honorary doctorates. She’s an author, she’s done a Ted Talk, and she's a choreographer of extreme action. She’s also one of SUNY Brockport’s own — a 1972 graduate.
An Ignorance About Dance
Streb enrolled in the College’s dance program, which was in its infancy at the time. It did not hold auditions, which was good for a non-dancer.
The department will celebrate its 50th anniversary on campus from February 21–23, with Streb and world-renowned choreographer and distinguished professor emeritus Garth Fagan as featured guests.
“I decided since I was a great mover, and I could draw. I was an artist. I thought that was dance, so I wrote that down as my major,” said Streb. But at that time, her greatest dancing ability was teaching her friends the latest Disco moves, she said.
Growing up, her mother instilled in her that she could do anything she wanted. She skied, played baseball and basketball, and bought her first motorcycle at just 15 years old. Streb believed she was coordinated and felt like an action hero — a term she would later coin for her students and company members.
So why not dance?
“All of my high school friends said, ‘Are you crazy? That has nothing to do with dance, and you can't just write down dance,’” Streb recalled. “I go, ‘No I think I can.’”
During her time at Brockport, Streb studied under Daniel Nagrin, a modern dancer, author, and choreographer. He assigned his students to choreograph their own dance, and Streb didn't know what that meant.
Attempt one: Nagin cut off and instructed Streb to pick a new song. Attempt two: Streb thought to herself, “Well, Elizabeth, you can't dance, so don't move; just stay in one place,” she said. That was a breakthrough moment. Her choreography landed her in a student concert as a solo. (Watch the video below for the full story.)
She graduated from Brockport and hopped on her motorcycle for 30 days, taking off to California to train under some of the best in ballet.
“I was obsessed with movement,” Streb said.
A Company of One
After training in San Francisco, Streb moved to New York City and took over a studio space. She cooked in restaurants seven nights a week to help pay bills. While others were touring and successful, Streb said her lack of quick success and fame was a motivator.
“It’s so interesting to realize that, when that doesn’t happen, that could be the best thing that happened to you,” Streb said. “You’re forced in(to) the studio, investigating things you're interested in.”
She was alone in her studio for years before she got the feeling that her ideas were working out. Streb would go on to develop a technique called PopAction.
Her company, STREB Extreme Action Company was founded in 1985.
“PopAction is a movement technique that was developed by Elizabeth Streb, with the idea that humans could fly, and so in order for us to fly, we have to learn how to fall,” said Cassandre Joseph, associate artistic director of Streb Extreme Action and director of education.
The technique draws a lot from extreme action disciplines, like gymnastics, circus, dance, rodeo, boxing, and parkour. “There’s no other technique like PopAction in the world, so really we are the pioneers, and we are the disseminators of that information,” Joseph said.
In 2003, Streb opened SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics), the name of her Brooklyn warehouse space that houses her company and the STREB PopAction and trapeze schools.
“The company and the school are so intertwined,” she explained. Joseph said her goal is to give the kids a similar experience to the company — including the freedom to create and push boundaries.
The school teaches about 60 classes weekly.
As she watched the company members practice by repeatedly running at a plexiglass wall and hitting it, Streb told a guest, “You develop an appetite for it. The dancers of Streb have an intense curiosity about foreign territory, force fields that are unnamed and unrecognizable, and also the agreement that they're willing to get a little hurt.”
Streb Has Her Eye on the Future
At 68, Streb has accomplished a multitude. She’s published a book. A documentary named “Born to Fly” has been made about her. And her company has performed in outrageous places — including the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
“To do things like what we did in London, to get on the London Eye or walk down City Hall or dive off the Millennium Bridge with bungies, that’s a dream, a serious dream,” said Streb.
So why stop there?
Streb wants to walk on water, specifically on the Potomac River. She plans to keep choreographing, reading, and learning more.
She wants Streb Inc. and PopAction out of the high art world and into everyday America.
“I think action has a right to be a universal phenomenon,” she said.