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Flights of fancy

Elizabeth Streb, a self-described 'action architect,' has made a career of gravity-defying choreography

"STREB vs. Gravity" features "Revolution" (above), which choreographer Elizabeth Streb devised as a dazzlingly complex piece for her acrobatic New York company.

NEW YORK -- "Ready, go!" screams Christine Chen as a 25-foot hamster wheel begins to rotate during a recent rehearsal. Her voice echoing in a huge garage in Williamsburg , Brooklyn , she throws herself face down from its upper reaches onto a thick red mat and lands with a noisy splat. As she rebounds into a standing position and races to the side of the room, Fabio Tavares leaps onto the wheel and clamors to the top. Ami Ipapo almost smashes her head as she swings herself onto a lower rung right below him.

"Watch out," yells choreographer Elizabeth Streb, 56, pushing her oversize black eyeglasses back on her forehead and rising to her feet from a nearby chair. Throwing up her hands, she acts as if it were the first time she'd seen her phenomenally athletic dancers almost hurt themselves. In fact, injury comes with the territory. But to her, it's worth it. "I know what wild action does to people," she says. "I know how cathartic it is and how it incites the spirit."

Streb brings "STREB vs. Gravity," a series of spectacular acts including the thrilling "Revolution," with the wheel, and the lyrical "Orbit," to the Institute of Contemporary Art Thursday through Feb. 25. Accompanied by pop hits, with a set by Michael Casselli lit with red and blue lights and video projections of letters, numbers, photographs, and text serving as a constantly moving backdrop, the show dazzles in every way.

Since establishing her company STREB in 1985, the choreographer has been devising the most acrobatic and daring work in modern dance. It's won praise and appreciative gasps everywhere the group has performed, including Grand Central Station, Coney Island, and at halftime of a Seattle SuperSonics NBA game. Acknowledging her intrepid and inventive approach, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation honored Streb with a "genius award" in 1997, which she used to study math and read philosophy.

After making sure Ipapo is OK, Streb steps away to explain her approach, which is always based on physics. "I start by coming up with questions like, 'Can you provide yourself with a completely frictionless surface?' " she says. "Then I develop a prototype of the environment with my designers before taking it to a structural engineer who builds it. I bring that into the studio and start developing vocabulary with the dancers. They engage in what I call reckless play. That's where I get my material. I think of them as method engineers and myself as an action architect."

Slight and intense, her short black hair worn in a Mohawk, Streb still looks like the motorcycle racer she was as a rebellious young woman growing up in Rochester, N.Y. Her experience as a downhill skier in the area only increased her inborn passion for risk. Later, she earned her degree in modern dance from the State University of New York in Brockport and studied with choreographers such as Viola Farber and Margaret Jenkins . But only the work of Merce Cunningham truly fascinated her, and no one served as her model, except perhaps motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel .

Streb describes "Revolution" as one of the most confounding pieces she has created. Taking a seat at a makeshift desk on which sit a computer and drawings of the wheel, she says, "Every dancer must make two choices as the wheel turns -- first, how to stay on, and second, how to make their movements coexist with the others. They can't see each other when they are on the outside of the wheel. They never see each other, all they can see is the inside of the wheel. The forces that are generated can be very surprising."

Streb points to a drawing that illustrates the dancers' various positions. "They only know someone has jumped off when they hear him or her shout a command," she says. " They create all the commands, odd names like 'Hercules' and 'Maple Syrup.' It makes all the difference who is on and who is off. They could hit someone if they don't know. They wear mikes and the entire set is miked. Everything is amplified so the audience fully appreciates what feats these guys accomplish." As protective and reassuring as a mother with her dancers, she says affectionately, "They are my heroes."

Streb's warm and enthusiastic manner, plus some business savvy, have helped her establish a vital base in the Williamsburg community. Until four years ago, she lived a nomadic existence, like most contemporary choreographers, traveling from studio to studio to rehearse. But her ordeal was compounded by her use of a lot of big, heavy, cumbersome equipment.

Realizing the need for a permanent base, she convinced local politicians and real estate developers to help finance the renovation of the warehouse, formerly a mustard factory, and give her a reasonable rent. In exchange, she happily agreed to provide neighborhood kids and adults with classes and shows. "I wanted to make this place a bit like the corner bodega," she says, "where people would want to hang out."

One need only visit SLAM, the Streb Laboratory for Action Mechanics, to see how well she has succeeded. The place is alive from morning to evening with classes, rehearsals, and birthday parties. Children and teenagers take over the space, eager to be taught by Streb's dancers what she calls "pop action." This involves learning how to climb walls, bounce on trampolines, and use her flying apparatus. She describes her technique as "the ability to fly, low to the ground, and fall from ever higher and higher, with the help of complex technical equipment."

No one has been closer artistically to Streb than Terry Dean Bartlett, her associate artistic director, who has been with the troupe for 10 years. "It's a real honor to work with Elizabeth," he says. "Every day, she creates amazing new stuff. Where else could I get that?"

At the ICA, they won't be able to drill holes in the floor, as usual, to secure equipment with cables. So they'll attach cables to the ceiling and use thousands of pounds of pig iron to weigh things down.

With only an hour left before the schoolkids arrive at SLAM, Streb rehearses "Orbit," a beautiful piece in which two dancers are harnessed to a pole and skillfully spiral, connecting in orbits that change in speed and dimension. Ipapo and Aaron Henderson put on their harnesses and swing out, moving farther and farther away from each other. Bathed in blue light, they look like underwater swimmers in a dreamlike grotto.

Pleased with their work, Streb lets all the dancers go for the day. But before they leave, they rest for a few moments. Performing such dangerous moves creates camaraderie, and they sit around together, sharing snacks and tips on how to better accomplish certain moves. They have no doubt about the value of doing Streb's work. "I love the constant challenge," says Dee Ann Nelson. "You develop a progression of skills that's never ending."

Ipapo adds, "When you confront fear on a daily basis, it translates into other areas of your life. You really grow."

Streb will speak about her work Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Science. For information, visit