Elizabeth Streb is on to something.
It was over 30 years ago that she first asked the question that continues to drive her work today: what does movement mean?
The approach Streb’s taken to answer that question has made her one of the most innovative voices in the dance world. And her methods may serve as a model for all of us when it comes to innovation.
In the beginning, Streb tried to answer the question all by herself. She experimented with different movements and materials and performed for any audience she could find. After deciding she needed a lab space, she created Streb Action Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) in 1979. In the decades that followed, Streb’s roles shifted from performer and dancer to teacher and choreographer.
The result? Through SLAM, Streb’s been able to invite audience members and performers into the conversation. It’s not only pushed her thinking, but it’s also helped her and her company to innovate on the work.
For the audience of a STREB performance, the experience is visceral. As they watch performers dart in and around fast-moving cinder blocks and I-beams, as well as rotating wheels and air rams, they cover their eyes, flinch, and gasp. For Streb’s dancers, the fear is always there. They purposefully fall and crash. They simultaneously participate in and create a new frontier.
Because inquiry drives the choreography, the teaching, and the performance, the approach is more fluid. The performers are members of the company, but they are also collaborators. They are expected to contribute to the work so that it extends beyond Streb and any fixed ideas of what movement is supposed to be.
Streb’s dancers learn by watching, doing, and practicing. She explains: “there is no STREB manual.” In fact, when they perform a move that extends the work, a move she hasn’t yet seen, she adds it to what she calls, STREB’s vocabulary:
‘That kind of invention is crucial. . . . My dream . . . is that this inquiry of mine is a transferable methodology. If it’s accurate in terms of time, space, forces, and body, and an astute mind could take that frame into the future, then it will have a bigger life than just me.’
‘ . . . the future of dance is not a single person bossing people around until he or she dies. . . . it’s the generation of an inquiry . . . that gets established through a single person’s provocation. Something more like an oral history than the work of a single author. . . . Who knows where it could go if I get out of the way?’
In many ways, Streb’s emphasis on inquiry and collaboration, and on extending SLAM’s work beyond any one expert or founder, is what individual and organizational learning and collaboration should be. In fact, that kind of fluidity and openness resembles very closely what Carse, in his fascinating book, Finite and Infinite Games, refers to as an infinite game:
Infinite games . . . do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and sometimes with a purpose of bringing more players into the game. An infinite game continues play, for the sake of play. . . . The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. . . .whoever plays, plays freely.
What Carse’s philosophy captures, and what Streb’s enactment of it reveals, is just how engaging, purposeful, playful, and meaningful work becomes when participants can innovate and extend the conversation.
It’s an interesting way to think about teaching, learning and leadership. It’s also a fascinating way to rethink roles in work and in life.
Where in your life do you see examples of infinite play?