Impressions from CHIME Across Borders with Elizabeth Streb

By Emmaly Wiederholt

When I walked into the room the first time the dancers and choreographers were progressing linearly across the floor in the most unusual and varied ways; Charles Slender one-hand cartwheeled while Kelly Del Rosario sat in a pike and nudged himself forward via his arms. Others chose a variety of methods, from rolling to slithering. The direction from Elizabeth Streb, chair of 2012’s CHIME Across Borders, was to not use the skeleton as impetus for locomotion but to disavow the skeleton in method of transfer of weight. I hardly knew what she was talking about. And perhaps that was the point; as Slender, one of the mentees later explained, “Streb encouraged me to ask choreographic or situational questions to which I do not already know the answer.”

CHIME Across Borders is a program through Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that brings together seasoned choreographers (usually from New York) with up-and-coming choreographers from the Bay Area. It is part of Choreographer’s In Mentorship Exchange (CHIME), which creates mentorship opportunities for choreographers. This year’s chair was Elizabeth Streb, known for her style called POPACTION, which combines dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, circus, and stunt-work. The 2012 CHIME Across Borders mentees were Gregory Dawson, Jo Kreiter, and Slender. Each choreographer was allowed to bring one dancer with them to the sessions with Streb. In addition Margaret Jenkins Dance Company joined in to create a lab which met for a few weeks throughout the year to put a magnifying glass on choreography.

“I got to really work with these thirteen people who are extraordinary and present them with problems and questions that they then addressed. When Margie asked me to participate in CHIME Across Borders my agenda was to try and establish a Streb POPACTION invention methodology so that I could set some rubrics in place for what I see as a question that movement makers are required to ask. I’ve taken this opportunity, because one of the gifts of this program for me was time, to wonder what the new moves in the world could be. All who participate in the subject of motion can wonder about this and perhaps add to the richness of the language of movement,” said Streb.

After the task of progressing across the floor, Streb spoke of creating tasks where one honestly doesn’t know the answer or solution, but still rigorously solves the problem without cheating or abbreviating. Streb explained, “If you go in with a plan you’ll come out with something you’ve already made. You have to set up a structure that expunges your memories and forces you into foreign territory.”

Foreign territory was a common theme: the next day Streb asked everyone to do three moves they wished they could do. Some people approached the problem from a purely physical standpoint, attempting physical feats that they could not in fact do. Others approached it philosophically: Margaret Cromwell danced in a closet, Catherine Newman ran around a pillar until she fell from dizziness and fatigue. Later Streb would ask everyone to “take the air out” of their dancing. These philosophical conundrums were purposeful on Streb’s part: “I don’t have solutions, just things I wonder about.”

Of course, CHIME Across Borders is a mentorship program, so I turned to the mentees to gauge how Streb’s approach to examining movement has affected their own approaches to choreography.

“I am moved by Elizabeth’s desire to name things in our discipline and to improve it. I admire her selflessness in wanting to push the form, and to push the practitioners of it to a more concise relationship to how we define what we do. I want to more clearly articulate my own method of dance making; I want to get better at naming its macro and micro components.  The mentorship has brought me to see this gap in my own choreographic practice. Questions about time and space are interesting but they are not as interesting to me as questions about justice. Does this make me less of a movement artist? I think it makes me have to work hard to become more of one,” assessed Kreiter of her experience.

Dawson was inspired to ask questions regarding his practice of dance. “I had to strip my preconceived ideas that I had about movement and actually examine what Streb asked of me very literally. She’d give me a task: how can you move without using your skeleton? I had to really think about that in a very physical way, using physics. What is going to propel me without using something that simulates walking? One of the biggest pieces of information that she’s given me, which I don’t think she necessarily meant to, is the time that I allow myself to look at movement. What is enough time for any given movement to be registered?”

Slender described a line of query resulting from his experience: “If you can’t successfully argue that a ‘move’ matters, i.e. that it has meaning in and of itself, then perhaps that move is superfluous and more investigation is needed to find the more ‘true’ move that really does matter.  The search for ‘truth’ in movement is what we’re really after, I think it’s something that probably can never be found but it’s something that keeps us going and unveils fabulous and interesting discoveries along the way. Streb has shifted my working ethic from what I ‘want to do’ to what I ‘need to do.’ That is a pretty enormous impact.”

Photo by Jack Mitchell