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Breaking Loose

Terry Dean Bartlett of STREB USA

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

September 4, 2005 -- Seattle, Washington

Prior to seeing STREB perform at Seattle's Bumbershoot Arts Festival over Labor Day Weekend, we caught up with STREB's energetic artistic associate and choreographer Terry Dean Bartlettover dinner. Here's a summary of our conversation.

How did a kid from Wyoming get from there into dance and the New York scene and the extraordinary STREB? Must have been quite a journey...

In sixth grade, on vacation with my family in San Francisco, I saw break-dancers for the first time, which really impressed me. I began taking jazz and break-dancing classes at a studio in my hometown, Cody. This studio had a group that would perform at the Lion's Clubs, area fairs and the like. There were other boys in the class with me, but they were there because they had heard that their various football heroes had taken dance classes for the conditioning that it offered. Recital time came around and they disappeared! [Laughs.] Since the other boys didn't show up, and there were supposed to be group class numbers, I ended up doing solos.

I did musicals in junior high and was involved with Missoula Children's Theatre. I went to the University of Montana on a National Merit Scholarship and studied acting. How I got more into dance is interesting. I had worked my way through the acting ranks and really felt ready, during my senior year, for the role of Alan Strang in "Equus." Well, that year, the leading part in all the plays seemed to have been going to the same person. It was down to the two of us, but this time was no exception. I was really disappointed, as it had been a dream role for me, but I ended up auditioning for the dance department for something to do. Six weeks later, the director, Amy Ragsdale, suggested I consider making dance a career.

How did you get to New York and what was that like?

I received a full scholarship to study at the Nikolai/Louis school that following summer (the last yearthat Murray Louis taught there.) He didn't use the "soft" criticism method but was of the "old-school" approach. He could be very harsh sometimes, but it was an excellent experience. I learned an intricate way of moving which was different from the physicality of the previous work I had been through, and I was fascinated by this new approach to movement in such a different way. He's a brilliant teacher. I was lucky to be able to study with him.

On a side note, I was rather shocked to find a vintage Broadway poster for the play "Equus" hanging above my bed when I moved into the apartment that I was subletting for the summer. I took it as a sign that I was on the "right path". I returned to UM and finished my acting degree that year and completed a degree in dance as well. Upon graduation I promptly moved to New York and auditioned like crazy for all sorts of companies through the summer and then auditioned for STREB that fall, and got in, but couldn't take the job due to other commitments. Luckily, Elizabeth called me that January asking if I was still interested in working with her (Thank God!) and I started rehearsing with the company the following April. I've been with STREB for eight years now.

 

What's been your creative and choreographic experience?

Outside of STREB, for the last six years, I have been producing a dance show, Danceoff! –  www.danceoff.net  – which is a showcase for new, emerging dance and physical theater artists.

We feature six to seven choreographers, with a seven minute maximum per artist, and the show lasts just over an hour. It's a way of audience building for an art form that I feel is mostly under/unappreciated. We've been doing Danceoff! at P.S.122 (a performance space in the East Village) every spring and fall for the last two years, as well as shows at Symphony Space and Joe's Pub, and free outdoor shows in Riverside Park and Union Square park.

 I usually make new work for these productions which keeps me pretty busy. One of the pieces I made for these shows, "Dance For a Girl (unnamed)” – which was co-created by my Danceoff! partner Katie Workum – I recently set on Headwaters Dance Company, a new repertory company out of Missoula, Montana, directed by Amy Ragsdale. It is a minimalist/absurdist movement theater piece consisting of just backflips (to the stomach), about 50-70 of them, "danced" to a live cello accompanist. It's a metaphor for relationships. [Headwaters will be premiering that in February 2006, in Missoula., along with new works from Jane Comfort, Pearson/Widrig dance, Amy Ragsdale and others.]

I have three pieces in the current STREB show: One that's known for its brevity, it's a fall from a great height - "Gravity." One that's based on my senior thesis piece where we are dangling and spinning from hay hooks - "Spin - Hayhook." And the other is a piece called "Hoops" that features two static ring trapezes or "Lira". It's more like a traditional circus act but developed with our own vocabulary. It's done 20 feet over the stage and is a duet.I recently received a New York Council on the Arts choreographer's grant to make work for the company, a quartet called Cubicle (9 2 5), that uses the “Pop Action” vocabulary of STREB, and places it theatrically in a 9 to 5 workday office space.

Also, as associate artistic director of STREB, I have designed the costumes for the current show, composed music for past pieces of repertory, scored the studio shows, and act as rehearsal director.

Which brings up the million dollar question, since we've never seen STREB: What is STREB? And what is the work like?

It's kind of a cross between Cirque du Soleil (with the acrobatics and aerial work), MTV's "Jackass" (dodging swinging cinder blocks, climbing, running, and flying off of a 16 foot tall human hamster wheel, slamming into a plexi-glass wall etc.) and Cunningham (task oriented, but with the addition of velocity and height.) We've developed a technique called "Pop-Action" which is a way to land, dispersing the impact across every surface of the body, so that no one point is taking excess impact, then popping the muscles upon impact and using the rebound as initiation for the next "move." We try to remove the transitions and preparations so that it seems the actions come from nowhere, more of a surprise. Spatially, we try to take advantage of verticality, choreographing often mid-air, (instead of the only across the stage, on the floor, on the feet), and, hence, the necessity for a way to land. We are trying to expose action as subject rather than the body as object.

As for creating work, Elizabeth Streb comes in with movement ideas and we work in a "see what you can do" mode. She will then have questions to develop and experiment. We're not allowed to say "no" or "I can't" but are encouraged, rather, to try anything no matter how absurd or impossibleit may seem. It may not work as intended, but other things will evolve. We work under the belief that movement takes as long as it takes and that it has its own rhythm and sound, and therefore never rehearse to music.

The complete company currently is comprised of seven dancers, plus two grant writers, our office manager and education director, and a studio manager/technical director. Our school in Brooklyn is finally starting to pay the rent, and our spring and fall in-studio performance seasons break even. We have mostly young students, from 4-12 years old, 14 classes a week, plus adult classes in PopAction Technique, and a new flying trapeze school.

What are your classes like? How do you teach what you do?

We begin with simple acrobatic gymnastic techniques, sometimes simple and pared down company repertory. We use a simple physical vocabulary and try to develop this to an archetypal level, deploying geometric shapes and pedestrian movement, using all surfaces of the body as bases of support.

 

How would you characterize STREB's work?

Art meets science and physics... but there is also a side line of humor in the work. It's the joy of flight, the drama of human beings accomplishing seemingly impossible feats. It's X-games on the stage. Though it comes from the "dance" world, it is something that everyone can understand and leave excited and transformed.

 

It's clearly very physical. How do you get and stay in shape?

I like to swim and I make sure that my cardio rate is up. I do about 20 minutes of cardio workmost days and do pushups, pullups, yoga, pilates, etc in addition to rehearsals. Most of the physical strength, to do the work, comes simply from doing the work 4 hrs a day, 4 days a week, plus teaching. We don't do a lot of extra "lifting" on the side. It's not about getting huge, per se, but more about having complete functionality and efficiency of movement.

 

What are the risks?

There is riskiness, but it's not as risky as it looks; nonetheless, there are injuries. Everyone
goes home with tired muscles from extreme use. The flying harnesses are tight, and often leave bruises and chafing around the waist and legs. A couple of us have been hit in the head with the cinder blocks. A jammed finger here, a black eye there, but it's all par for the course really. It's an action environment and we feel that if it isn't extreme, if you are not taking risks, why bother?!

What's it like free falling?

Everything slows down and various minutiae become noticeable. Finding a perfect line for the perfect landing. With falls over 20 feet I can feel the acceleration, hearing and feeling the wind and velocity increase. Then I hear the entire audience collectively inhale (gasp!) and it almost seems like I suck towards them just a tiny bit. In "Gravity" I fall from 25 feet.

One time, after I had already launched off, I could see the mats were not directly below as usual. It was quite a fright. I was sure I was going to hit the hard stage floor. I had to quickly twist and adjust in the air to land correctly (well, just land on the mat at all) though it was in quite a heap, and not the nice impact dispersing line I am used to. It's quite a rush.

What does an "extremist" do for fun?

After rehearsals and performances, usually just eat and sleep above all else. I am lucky to have a back yard, and I do a little gardening back there and play with the cats that wander in. I would love one of my own, but the landlords won't allow pets. I am a pretty obsessive music collector. I enjoy all types of music though I definitely have a penchant for the electronic. I like music from many ethnic backgrounds. I like '80s music and was a bit of a "Goth" back in Wyoming. I listen to some classical, jazz, and hip-hop lately too. It's a little all over the map I guess. The Ipod has to be the best toy ever invented.

I skateboard to work every day. I see a lot of shows. I guess the typical NY stuff: museums, galleries, restaurants, films. I bungee jumped off the Manhattan bridge once with a friend for her 38th birthday, and went skydiving once off the coast of Oahu. Those are probably the only "extreme" things I have done. I used to snowboard when I lived in the mountains, but don't get to much anymore, I miss it. Though it's technically work, I do printwork and have acted and done stunts in a few commercials on the side, which can be pretty fun.

What more would you like to tell us about STREB?

For those that haven't seen our work, we appear on the "Midnight Sun" DVD by Cirque du Soleil ("Fly", "Ricochet", and my "Spin/Hayhook"). We also appeared on David Letterman a year ago performing our Plexi-Glass wall piece, "Ricochet". We will have a short tour in the Spring of '06 in NY, NJ, and FL, and check www.strebusa.org for complete info on future tour schedules classes, auditions and studio shows at our STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (S.L.A.M.). Our tours have taken us to Australia, Taipei, France, England, Chile, Singapore, Italy, and all over the U.S. That's probably been the best thing about STREB, getting to travel.

For dancers interested in auditioning for STREB we have auditions roughly every two years. Our dancers are on annual contracts and expected to make a two year commitment. The work is part-time, but it's a full-time commitment to maintain physicality. S.L.A.M. is open to the public and rehearsals are open to the public as well.

I have been working with STREB now for going on nine years, and as long as I continue to stay as fascinated with the work as I always have been, I will continue to fly and bang around the box truss 'til I'm (black and) blue in the face.

Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.

 

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