When the lights go down in the beautiful Institute of Contemporary Art theater for "STREB vs. Gravity," a brief video of what looks like a physics lesson appears, announcing that "the heavyweight king of the ring is gravity." What follows is a gasp-inducing, heart-pounding demonstration of that scientific fact using human bodies to illustrate key concepts.
In a series of "action events," the dancers of STREB -- Terry Dean Bartlett, Christine Chen, Sarah Donnelly, Ami Ipapo, Kevin Lindsay, deeAnn Nelson, and Fabio Tavares Da Silva -- spin, fly, twist, drop, and leap in combinations that don't so much defy gravity as toy with it. Indeed, the humor behind many of the dancers' shouted commands and the joy they seem to get from their complicated moves create their own kind of energy. Although the use of pads, harnesses, and bungee-like cords suggests an acrobatic circus act, the sequences' graceful fluidity and precise storytelling demonstrate the careful construction of what STREB founder Elizabeth Streb calls "PopAction."
Streb is much more than a choreographer or even an "action architect," as she describes herself. She's an alchemist, concocting a potent brew of dance, gymnastics, and physics that transforms these elements into an exhilarating evening of movement.
The seven "action engineers" appear utterly fearless as they somersault in the air and land noisily on their stomachs, flip upside down while suspended from a cable, spin upside down at a dizzying speed while suspended from a meat hook, and lean at increasingly dangerous angles on a tilting platform. But always, in the most subtle and elegant ways, the moves are tied to the story Streb is telling about the physical properties of motion, resistance, momentum, velocity, and mass.
Streb also illuminates her points and highlights her dancers' skill and humor with video. A camera placed above the playing area displays the action on a screen behind the dancers, for an effect that is hilariously disorienting. In a piece titled "Crash," the dancers spin and slide along the floor, but on screen they look as if they're vertical and balancing in the air. The dancers play with this notion by waving their arms a bit as if catching their balance as they leap to "stand" on each other's hands and shoulders. In another sequence, as the dancers run, fall, and roll to avoid the pendulum swing of two cement blocks, the camera above illuminates exactly how close the blocks come to the bodies, and how carefully planned the combinations must be.
The evening's climax is "Revolution," an astonishing performance in, around, atop, and underneath what looks like a giant spinning hamster wheel. In another clever touch, the screen folds up to the tune of "Thus Spake Zarathustra" from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the lights change so that as the wheel is revealed, so is the ICA's magnificent harbor view. The effect is terrifying and invigorating. That combination of awe-inspiring vision and understanding makes STREB a brilliant experience. But the bottom line is when the dancers shout out the com-mand "Fly!" it may take all your strength to resist leaping out of your seat to join them.