When Elizabeth Streb teaches people how to be stunt-dancers she puts a lot of emphasis on tightening the muscles, especially in the gut. But this is not one of the techniques she mentions. Streb is a New York-based choreographer, a former doughnut chef and circus groupie, whose heroes used to be modern dance guru Merce Cunningham and Joan of Arc.
About 20 years ago, she got tired of the conventional balletic, Cunningham- based dance she had been taught, and started to make something new. "I wanted to redefine gracefulness," she explains. "With us, you're not looking at the body, you're looking at the action: you can see all the forces at work." Streb refers to her style as "pop action", using the energy contained in certain postures and muscles under tension, to explode a dancer from place to place. "All that business of stepping from foot to foot - it takes forever and it is so predictable. I hate having to wait for something I know is going to happen. It's boring. After all, it's 1995, there's not much time left."
Streb's own favourite dance is called "breakthrough", in which someone dives through a plate glass window. "It lasts, like, one second: it's over before the audience expects it to start. And that glass really splashes. But if you dive through perfectly you don't really get cut." With the split-second timing required for her high-velocity, high-impact style of dancing, "perfect" is a word that Streb uses a lot. You know you've got your gut perfectly tight because it "almost whistles" and you have to listen for the perfect sound your body makes as different parts of it slam into the ground. In fact, it helps to have an acoustic body if you want to stunt-dance.
Streb and her company, Ringside, don't use music, "and unlike normal dance, we don't count rhythms, because it's all too quick. By the time you've said 'one' it's over". So dancers often take their cues from the sound of someone else crashing into a mat, some boards or the wall. Streb even mikes up and amplifies parts of her equipment to make sure not one moment of muscle percussion goes unnoticed.
Not surprisingly, a large part of her time is spent, not telling people how to do things, but persuading them to try. "We're constantly discovering new kinds of fear," she says, "and we have a lot of techniques for addressing them. But everyone's afraid of something." Streb rarely takes no for an answer though. Through all the colliding, bouncing, flying and falling, she believes that "it's hard to get really hurt if you're not focusing on fear, but focusing on the move".
She coaxes dancers through their "fear zone", getting them to the point where even serious vertigo sufferers insist on climbing into a harness and gambolling on the surface of a 40ft-high wall. "Although the guy who did that, he was still pretty freaked out. I wouldn't have wanted to be up there with him."
Elizabeth Streb has been called the Quentin Tarantino of dance. She is more like the Tex Avery. Using real flesh and blood, she makes a cartoon world where bodies under impact squash, but don't break, and where you can run off the edge of a cliff but don't start to fall, until you notice that the ground is missing. For a few minutes at a time, she turns human beings into Wiley Coyotes hilarious, careering and indestructible.
Ringside, Greenwich Dance Agency, Borough Hall, Royal Hill, London SE10 (0181-293 9741) 8pm 13-14 Oct, pounds 8/pounds 5Reuse content