The Boundary Breakers

By Jo Phillips


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Did you ever have the thought that when you put one foot in front of the other, that as much as you are walking, you are dancing?


Dance in its earliest form is based on the way that we move. It is moulded around the way we do the simplest things with our bodies. Such as the gesture of an arm whilst in conversation. The movement of the torso to turn a corner. The arch of the back, and neck to look up at the sky. This is the basis of the work of two great twenty-first-century avant-garde choreographers who have challenged the ideals of movement at its very core: Trisha Brown and Elizabeth Streb. Both of who, have dared to explore the very limits of what we are able to do with our bodies. What we define as dance: how can we rewrite the regulations of this art form and create something different?

These two extraordinary artists, who broke away from traditional French ballet to redefine dance and movement know exactly how. While they both had ballet training, their craft follows a whole different rulebook. Brown and Streb both break boundaries with what the average person perceives as dance; they push the boundaries of what we can do with our bodies to create performances that have generated reactions of astonishment, wonderment, and shock, never felt by an audience before.

Our story begins with an American choreographer and dancer, Trisha Brown. Brown’s work in the 60′s, 70′s, and 80′s was ground-breaking for the progression of modern dance:


“So much of Brown’s work is about the order of events. Paying close attention to the details as the teacher demonstrates a movement, in order to make that movement flow organically, and stay focused. To observe where the weight shifts and which joint moved first in order to understand the movement’s purpose.”

– Tamara Riewe, Trisha Brown Dance Company member.


Just as with any type of dance, say, contemporary, ballet or street, the Trisha Brown-style certainly has its own rules. To learn to move the Trisha Brown way is to learn a new language of movement. Train your body to think in a different way. Her style incorporates a complete refusal of the codification and categorisation of ballet. Thus, those who successfully perform it should move with a naturalness that appears to be improvised.


What Brown created was the ability to work on building new awareness of bodily movement. She reconsidered movement as a whole and understood that dance was a force powerful enough that it could stand on its own, without music. Her approach in her work was based upon the natural, ‘human’ way of moving. Focusing on the seemingly insignificant gestures we make in our everyday lives to develop a fluid style. A style that is built on the understanding of the cause and effect relationship transferred through a body in motion.


“It is like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions.”

-Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the 60′s and 70′s, describes her experience of Brown’s dance style


Perron makes the comparison to water, one of nature’s most pure elements. That sums up the experience of being in the presence of a Trisha Brown performance perfectly. Brown’s correlation with the naturalness of the world that she explores in the majority of her work, is also reflected in the settings she chooses for her performances. She swaps stages for fields, museums, the sides of buildings, firehouses, trees, or lakes to bring her dance into ‘the real world of objects and unpredictable events’. Brown had an eye for creating a performance space that no one would conventionally choose, lighting up insignificant places with the fire of her movement. Brown’s collaboration with several artists during her long and successful career including the likes of, Yvonne Rainer, Twyla Tharp, Steve Paxton, and Merce Cunningham, encouraged her very individual ethos to dance. She worked with many of them at the avant-garde Judson Dance Theatre in the 1960′s, of which she became a founding member.


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Image by The Trisha Brown Dance Company


Brown was the catalyst for a revolution of boundary breaker choreographers, who would see movement in a completely original way and defy the conformity of modern dance styles like ballet. Elizabeth Streb was one of these choreographers. In an exclusive interview with .Cent Magazine, Streb talks about her vision for movement, and why Trisha Brown was an inspiration for her:


“In her early stages, I witnessed Trisha Brown performing. She was an amazing hero of mine. I am an echo against her work. I’m not a lyricist, I believe in my investigation of action, not dance. Trisha is a dance choreographer and I more or less landed in dance by default. From early on I considered myself an action specialist, my interest in momentum, velocity, and impact. When I read about the art of making dances, I began to make my own skeleton relative to that subject of action: space, time, forces, and then lastly body. The body as a result.”

– Elizabeth Streb


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Image by Josh Flanagan Streb Show


Streb isn’t just a choreographer. She is a movement engineer, extreme action dancer, and overall daredevil. Her style of choreography goes beyond the realms of modern dance, to achieve gravity-defying movement. She combines dance with gymnastics, stunt work, and the American circus to create choreography that tests each person taking part in their limits. The goal; to push humans to achieve their full physical potential, creating the illusion that humans can fly, exceed their speed limit, breakthrough glass, or run up walls. The world of movement that Streb has created is exciting for an audience to watch, she goes above and beyond to ensure those in the presence of her work will feel a new type of thrill and exhilaration, one that cannot be found in any other type of performance art. Streb creates performances where the possibilities of what can happen next are endless.


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In 2003, Streb started SLAM (Streb Lab for Action Mechanics) in Brooklyn, where people could come take part in classes, learn the art that she had created and watch rehearsals. Within the Streb Lab, there are custom-made trusses, trapezes, trampolines, and a flying machine for the dancers to launch themselves through the air in different ways. Streb sees her company as a place where taking physical risks is necessary in order to find the answers to questions such as, ‘Can you fall up?’. Her 2014 documentary, BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, answers a lot of the questions that those fascinated by her work desire to know, and states, the lengths you have to go to, to truly achieve Streb movement.


Elizabeth Streb and Trisha Brown both identify as being extremely experimental in their work. They come from a standpoint of questioning the concept of creation and having the strength and knowhow to revise the science behind the body’s relationship with movement. Just as every theorist, philosopher, and scientist will ask the question, what is space? Do these choreographers ask what really is dance? Streb’s understanding of grace in movement is different to how it is seen in the traditional sense, she has a deeper perception:


“I think the inquiry of dance is too attached to music and has already decided what grace is, not musical grace, physical grace. Physical grace is not smooth, it is not durational, it is abrupt, immediate.”

– Elizabeth Streb



This idea of breaking away from styles such as ballet and breaking down dance to its core is explored in pieces such as Man Walking Down The Side Of The Building. A piece Streb was commissioned to do by Trisha Brown, as a revamp of her infamous seminal 1971 performance of Walking on the Wall, which premiered at The Whitney. In her version, Streb works with gravity and momentum to create an effortless-looking performance, using daredevil and harnesses to allow dancers the ability to walk up and down walls. Man Walking Down The Side Of The Building, like many other of Streb’s pieces, makes an important point about her as an artist: the performances she creates are made to be received by ordinary people, such as the Brooklyn locals looking on at her performance in complete wonderment. Streb’s performances aren’t confined to a ballet theatre where the entertainment is only available for grandiose theatre goers, she performs outside, she gives everyday people the gift of being engaged with dance.


Just as Trisha Brown’s work redefined how dance should be seen and felt, finding new natural pathways of motion within the body, Elizabeth Streb’s purpose became to rewrite the rules of human limitation, pushing her dancers to go beyond what feels natural:


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– Elizabeth Streb


What they recognised within dance was radical: that being in complete control when dancing when in ballet, is to not really dance and to not really move. Although Brown sadly passed away in 2017, her contribution to dance lives on through The Trisha Brown Dance Company, an organisation where new dancers continuously learn and practice the Trisha Brown-style every day. Similarly in the Streb Lab, Elizabeth Streb’s dancers are breaking down the movement, walking on walls, defying gravity, and inspiring people with the idea that it is possible to think, move and perform differently. We look forward to the outstanding work that she will no doubt create for years to come.


Words: Elizabeth Greatre



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