Recent Krannert shows left me invigorated

Shows this fall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts have been some of the most invigorating and inspiring I've experienced. Not to mention different.

Particularly, the performances by the Streb Extreme Action Company and "Man on Wire" Philippe Petit left me contemplating how I can more often leave my extreme comfort zone to experience life more fully.

They left me feeling more alive and in the moment.

In case you don't know by now, Petit is the charming Frenchman who with friends stretched a cable across the twin towers of the World Trade Center the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, and then, in a remarkable nearly unfathomable feat, walked and danced the high wire, a quarter-mile above the streets of New York.

He is more than that one-mega-hit wonder. He has pulled off 80 high-wire acts, most at landmark buildings around the world.

And he does other things, too.

Judging from his one-man show Oct. 2 at Krannert, Petit also is a trickster, motivational speaker, storyteller, juggler, magician, pickpocket, teacher, author and entertainer, sort of in the mold of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, both of whom he admires.

He opened his show in the Tryon Festival Theatre by peeking through the opening between the stage curtains and saying, "I always come from a distant planet, and I land. I don't know why, but I land behind a theater curtain."

The "action maverick" went on to share "bits and pieces" of his "strange life," making his points by drawing pictures or writing words on a whiteboard.

The words, he said, drive him. He hopes they drive us as well: Passion. Observe. Tenacity. Intuition. Faith. Courage. Improvise. Surprise (yourself). Impossible.

"I love the idea that nothing is impossible," Petit said during the Q and A after the show. "I love to succeed. Life is made to be lived. Go home and make the impossible happen."

Besides talk, which he does really well, Petit performed card tricks, juggled three white balls and did hat tricks. He went into the first rows of the audience and pilfered a fedora from one man and watches from the wrists of a couple other victims.

In the most dramatic part of his show, called "Breaking the Rules: An Evening with Philippe Petit," he re-enacted his World Trade Center high-wire act, albeit briefly and on firm footing. He later said that part of the show was unscripted and gave him goosebumps.

Elizabeth Streb, who must have read a lot of superhero comic books when she was growing up, admires Petit, who said as a youth he was expelled five times from school and taught himself everything he knows.

She gave him her first Action Maverick Award.

I won't forget one comment Streb makes about Petit in the video that was part of her Extreme Action Company's show, also in Tryon. She said she once asked Petit if he felt fear when walking the wire between the twin towers. He replied that he did, but the fear was just one more detail.

Besides the Petit show and two performances by the Streb company, there was a CultureTalk with Petit and Streb moderated by Krannert director Mike Ross and Tim Fox, president of Columbia Artists Management.

Streb, a fun-looking woman with spiked dark hair and oversized, black horn-rimmed glasses, gave some clues during CultureTalk about her choreography, which brought her a MacArthur "genius" award some years ago.

She said she's obsessed with movement and hardware. She believes action will rule the world. She hates lateral movement. Unlike Mark Morris, she believes music is the enemy of dance because music artificially leads from one action to the next.

She doesn't like the accusations that the daredevil movements enacted by her company members — they look like punk gymnasts on steroids — are stunts. That led to a discussion between Streb and Petit about stunts; he also dislikes being compared to a stuntman or circus high-wire artist because they underline the risk or danger they take.

Petit said he doesn't take risks like crossing the street without looking both ways first. He doesn't think he takes risks during his carefully planned high-wire walks, which he called "walks in midair," or "invisible promenades."

Streb said she must be a distant cousin to Petit because her whole business is about falling. She believes the drama in her work is in the "hits" her company members take. Those are picked up by microphones embedded in the mats on which they fall, sometimes from great heights or from hardware.

She bases her action mechanics on math, gravity and physics; her work fuses dance, gymnastics, sports and the circus.

During "Forces," the Streb show at Krannert, her counterweighted performers — she calls them theatrical collaborators — climbed a 25-foot square wall. They ran up and onto a large sheet of Plexiglass, holding onto it at times while holding the horizontally positioned body of another performer.

They moved inside a Whizzing Gizmo that would eject them. They sat on a floor with a steel beam revolving over them, sitting up and then quickly lying back down as the beam came their way.

They leapt from a truss that was moved higher and higher, landing level with the mat. They moved against and with the turbulence resulting from a revolving floor.

Everything was timed precisely as the performers worked against invisible forces, among them constraint.

Streb is open about her "Pop Action" work. She invited everyone to her Streb Lab for Action Mechanics at 51 N. First St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We rehearse, practice and investigate in public," she said. "We try to not sell the show until it's really ready, which it never is. You want to talk about risk!" (Streb's "action heroes" also work with youths in the neighborhood.)

Streb, 62, gave up performing extreme actions when she was 48. She told A.M. Homes for a BOMB magazine article that she stopped because that had started to become the subject of her activity.

"I started to hear, 'Wow, you can still do that and you're 48?' It was a practical decision — three hours a day to keep in that shape? Because if you don't do that, you just can't do that," she told Homes. "I had been training for 30 years. It's very boring to exercise. I stopped. I let it go, which was a good thing. I still let extreme things happen to me."

Petit, on the other hand, said he practices his skills three hours a day.

At the CultureTalk, Streb also reiterated something Petit had said: "Discomfort and being out of your comfort zone is a constant zone you need to go to."

I want to remember that.

Finalist for award

Dave Eggers, who has a journalism degree from the University of Illinois, is among the five finalists for a 2012 National Book Award for fiction for his novel "A Hologram for the King," about an American businessman in Saudi Arabia. He won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in 2009.

Richard Powers, who recently retired from the UI, where he was a Swanlund Chair Professor of English and writer in-residence, won the National Book Award for fiction in 2006 for his novel "The Echo Maker," about ecology and neuropsychology.

During the 2013 spring semester, Powers will be the Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford University.

There he will teach a fiction course to undergraduates and give a talk at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 in the in the Knight Management Center. The talk is free and open to the public.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about. This column appeared in print on Oct. 14.

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