Dancing On The Fly

In the world of Elizabeth Streb, where costumes and sets are always in primary colors and where traditional dance conventions are banished, the defiance of gravity is the primary objective. As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver reports, the 49-year-old native of Syracuse, New York has critics redefining the concept of dance.

"It is completely dangerous, and it's full of risk," says Elizabeth Streb of the performances of her troupe, also called Streb. "And I'm not interested in anything else. I believe that if you're not endangering yourself, then you're doing what you already know how to do. And what's the point?"

Streb calls it "pop-action," a combination of ballet and modern dance that reflects her bicoastal training in the drastically different dance styles. Challenging the concepts of space and place, Streb's technique is so athletic, so daring, and so different that some critics questions whether it's even dance.

That doesn't bother her, especially considering it won her a $290,000 MacArthur Genius Grant in 1997. "I mean, I felt the earth move, I really did," says Streb. "It changes your life. Mostly you feel that this is an acknowledgment from your colleagues and community at large. There's nothing better than that."

The MacArthur money not only relieved Streb of debt, but also left her additional funds to cover her troupe's expenses. "When I go to the bank machine with my ATM card, my heart doesn't pound anymore!"

For more than 20 years, Steb put her ideas to practice on her own body, dancing with her ensemble, pushing herself as hard as she pushed them. But two years ago she quit, not because she was too old but because she wanted to concentrate on creating dances that seemed to resist gravity.

"I think everyone sort of has this desire to flyÂ…and to be moving, be constantly traveling through space," says Hope Clark, a Washington D.C. native and the most senior Streb dancer, with eight years under her belt. "I think that Elizabeth has found a way to do that. I'm a trained dancer, but what I found is that it challenged everything I ever studied. It made me use everything I knew about the body and about theater and about art."

"It's a belief that the human body can fly," says Streb. "Hope is able to dance on the ceiling as well as the floor. And I wanted to defy the necessity of the floor in that dance. And I added other bodies to juxtapose Hope's weightlessness with their gravity-bound bodies. I want [the audience] to, unbeknownst to themselves, to feel dizzy, and think that perhaps they're looking down on us from above, and it's them that's up, not us."

The dancers rehearse at least two hours a day in their Brooklyn studio. They spend hours working out in the gym, strengthening their bodies and preparing their minds for any challenge Streb might throw at them.

"What I love about thway she thinks is, she's constantly giving herself and us questions," says dancer Christine McQuade, who is from New York City. "How high could we go, or what surface of the body could we use that we wouldn't really think about."

Nikita Maxell, from Nahayma, Oregon, was scared at first. "It's extremely frightening. I was having nightmares about that moment," she says.

And rightfully so, as movement often comes at the expense of physical wellbeing. "I kneed Sheila in the face in a performance. Christine and Lisa bashed chins and teeth together. The flying machine hit me once; split my back open," says dancer Terry Dean Bartlett.

Streb takes her dancers on their dangerous journey without music in the traditional sense. "I believe music is a true enemy of dance, and I think that's it's too bossy," she says.

But there is sound, powerful and provocative, manipulated by composer Matthew Ostrowski. He plants microphones and sensors all through the set to heighten the drama of dancer and surface colliding.

Yet Streb is still searching for new ways to thrill and amaze her audience.

"I know I don't always succeed in what I'm doing, but when I think of my ideal Streb move, it's extreme, it's dangerous, it's hard, it's fast, it's wild, it's turbulent...it's out of control!"