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Action-Packed Dance
An innovative artist in residence teaches MIT students some new moves
By Catherine Nichols

Try to achieve a horizontal levitation,” Elizabeth Streb instructs a gymnasium full of MIT students as she hovers parallel to the floor. Only her palms are touching the mat beneath her. The students are having some trouble following her lead, as is their teacher: in the back, Thomas DeFrantz, an associate professor of music and theater arts, laughs as he falls over. DeFrantz invited the dancer to spend four days on campus in October as an artist in residence, during which time she gave the Abramowitz Memorial Lecture, taught the class in the gym, and visited students and professors.

Streb is an innovator in dance and leader of Streb, a dance company based in New York City. She says she creates “‘page-turners’ of actions,” a metaphor that makes a little more sense when she shows slides of her historic leap through a sheet of glass, or when she falls straight backward without bending or flinching. She even lit herself on fire once as part of a performance. In spite of the potential for pain, Streb assures the students that the moves she is teaching them are all perfectly safe and probably healthy.

All the same, DeFrantz has a few aches the next day. Streb’s visit was just what he had hoped, though—a way to encourage a “maverick streak in the students, who are innovators in their areas,” he says. Unlike Streb, DeFrantz is not interested in training MIT students in a particular mode of dance. He wants to show students from different fields some interesting ways to think about their bodies and about physical space. Then they can incorporate those ideas into their work in the classroom or lab. He wouldn’t be at MIT if he wanted to train professional dancers, he says. “You get a room of trained dancers and you explain a problem to them, and they all come up with the same solution,” DeFrantz says. “But you get a room full of MIT students, and they’re all thinking of different things—things I never would have come up with. I just love that!”

In the gym with Streb, the students looked like they loved it, too. Many of them were levitating, and most of them were laughing.

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