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Performance Review:

Streb in "STREB GO: ACTIONHEROES" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

When audience members in the first two rows of the theater are asked to wear protective headgear, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary movement affair. New York-based choreographer Elizabeth Streb, creator of a form of athletic-daredevil-stunt dance called"pop action," presented the Chicago premiere of her latest performance piece, "Streb Go: ActionHeroes," tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater. Her company Streb, that also bears her name, consists of eight "movers" with a physically audible propensity for free-falling, slamming their bodies against hard surfaces, gymnastics, circus arts, movie stunt routines and even an artful sort of claustrophobia.

But this 90-minute staged agility test does not merely throw the performers into dangerous, cliff-hanging situations. Each section mirrors images associated with famous daredevils of the past -- from a series of artists gracefully hurling themselves into and over planks as a visceral nod to Evel Knievel's perilous motorcycle ingenuities to a panic-inspiring salute to Harry Houdini via the ensemble squeezing itself into a Plexi-glass case to a metaphoric recreation of Annie Taylor's successful slide down Niagara Falls in a barrel.

The opening sequence features the performers partnering, so to speak, "the forces of action," as they drop themselves vertically, horizontally and diagonally onto amplified mats from a rising beam. Surrounded by what looks like the skeleton of a skyscraper, they proceed to pound their limbs and sinews into various geometric formations -- all featuring exquisite line and stingingly accurate focus. Within their terrifying and no doubt painful acrobatics, they demonstrate precision dance technique.

But "Streb Go: ActionHeroes" is more than a dance-based performance piece. It's a particularly active physics class, where gravity and centrifugal force are demonstrated by toppling from cranes or spinning around in an intricate ensemble sequence with two-by-fours. It's also a celebration of how daredevils of the past freed themselves of fears or limitations in order to weave "a private poetry in public places" (like walking a tightrope across the EIffel Tower or flying with only the aid of a lawn chair and helium balloons).

Streb herself explores the endless possibilities of movement expression. The relentless concentration and commitment of her performers -- who roll and tackle swinging mirrors and scale a glass wall like SpiderMan without the aid of suction hands -- show how moves once confined to the gym or an action-adventure movie set can be transformed into a transitionally and thematically sound execution of muscle control and flexibility on stage.

In the first half, it's no accident that the ensemble is clad in red and black unitards, reminiscent of checkers on a treacherous board or a living deck of cards being shuffled through a variety of risky apparatuses. The performers work as one concrete block of movers, yet their individual personalities manage to emerge amid all the spiraling and bruise-invoking body slams. They are Terry Dean Bartlett, Sheila Carreras Brandson, Lisa Dalton, Eli McAfee, Nikita Maxwell, Biran Brooks, Chantal Deeble and Weena Pauly.

One of their most charming routines is "Airswim," in which they reimagine a water-less version of an Esther Williams swimming-pool ballet using aqua-blue mats and an expertly tilted mirror to resemble an aerial camera view. And it's delightful when Streb leads the audience in an exercise routine that allows them to feel their organs jiggle.

One of the troupe's most terrifying acts involves a woman diving through glass a mere breath away from the audience. Less successful are a performer tumbling about and pounding against a glass case in the Niagara Falls section and a meticulous but repetitive trampoline finale. In fact, Streb could trim 20 minutes from the show, and she would still make her point about the thrill of testing the limits of gravity.

Streb -- the equivalent of the contortionist modern-dance troupe Pilobolus on speed -- reinforces the appeal of certain masochistic thrills while splitting open the definition of dance to the realm of a compelling and fearless contact sport.•

"Streb Go: Action Heroes" runs through February 9 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Call 312-397-4010.
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