Dancing with ‘dream machines’
MacArthur genius’-in-residence blends arts, physical sciences in dance lab

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs



Elizabeth Streb instructs her dancers in artistic use of the “catastrophic realizer,” a type of I-beam teeter-totter that bounces up and down — and spins like a merry-go-round.
Peg Skorpinski photo

07 March 2001 | An experimental dance troupe, in residence on campus last week, blended 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 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 teeter-totter 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, a 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 Berkeley in the National Dance Lab pilot project, Streb tapped four of her eight regular dancers and three students from the 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, served as a studio for the downright wild exploration of movement by the dancers.

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.

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 (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 Berkeley professors and with Matthew Stromberg, a former Streb dancer who is now a Berkeley architecture student, resulted in equipment designed and produced for last 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 the 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, 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.

Related link:

Architecture student designs and constructs large, Lego-like objects for National Dance Lab pilot project


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