Perhaps you’ve heard of Elizabeth Streb, the MacArthur genius grant-winning choreographer who’s been plying her unique style of “pop action” dance in New York City for decades. Perhaps you’ve not. Either way, the new documentary about her work, “Born to Fly,” is a fine primer for her daring, death-defying style of dance and for the unique artist herself. Directed by Catherine Gund, the film focuses on what drives Streb (as most everyone refers to her) to create in the manner she does.
The dancers in the Streb Extreme Action Company hurl their bodies at walls, dodge swinging i-beams and cement blocks, and fall from great distances onto their faces —all gracefully of course. And that’s just when they’re inside. Outside, the dancers walk down the faces of skyscrapers, float, fly and swing suspended from cables and bungees. Streb has a warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that houses her Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, a sort of mad scientist’s lair for not only dance but pushing the limits of the human body in its relationship to forces like gravity, time, space and simple machinery. Buff gymnasts and dancers hurl themselves and cling to massive spinning wheels rotating around the room in various iterations, all at the behest of Streb, who sits sketching blueprints for her works.
The film follows a few loose framing devices for telling Streb’s story: first, a show at the SLAM lab depicts an audience gasping and screaming in shock at the daredevil attitude and physical bravura on display. The second is a dinner party that Streb is hosting with her partner Laura Flanders, and as she preps pasta for the likes of choreographer Bill T. Jones and legendary academic Catherine Stimpson, she tells her life story. Growing up adopted and close with her contractor father, she went hunting with him and helped him with construction projects. She eventually majored in dance in college before driving her motorcycle to San Francisco and pursuing a dance career. It’s clear that Streb’s childhood memories of her father inform her explorations of physical force, space and time in relationship to the body, and her current work utilizes mundane construction objects like i-beams, concrete blocks, and truck straps, and her visions of the different contraptions she envisions for her dancers to cavort on are clearly from the same creative wellspring.
The storytelling isn’t overly intrusive, and the stories come in a natural, conversational format. Streb’s life story and journey through the New York dance world is fascinating, illustrating how she came to create her own unique style and dance language. Some of the Streb dancers share their backgrounds, but it’s all about the overarching theme, which is the meaning of her work, what she is attempting to do when hurling and smashing bodies in space, true action heroes, as they brand themselves.
The film culminates in her work for the 2012 London Olympics, “One Extraordinary Day,” where they perform feats of grace and athleticism and sheer physics in relationship with some of London’s architectural landmarks: bungee-ing off the Millenium Bridge, walking down City Hall, and harnessing onto the spokes of the London Eye. The sheer beauty and bravery and boldness is chill-inducing, especially when the dancers speak about what a special experience it was.
“Born to Fly” is a special film about an artist very much dedicated to an original vision, one that that tries to articulate the relationship of human bodies to space and time, and the fragility but also strength and resilience towards unstoppable and unmovable forces beyond our control. Streb reorients the viewer’s relationship to these forces, makes one think differently about how we exist with them. If there’s any criticism to be levied, it’s just that we wanted to see more dance, which can’t quite be fully captured on film, only in person. Still, capturing Streb’s artistry, inspiration and thought processes behind her work makes it more than worthwhile. [A-]