Born to Fly is a new documentary film which premiered March 8 at the 2014 SXSW festival.
Directed by Catherine Gund, Born to Fly chronicles the work of action architect Elizabeth Streb of the STREB Extreme Action Company in Brooklyn, NY. STREB was founded in 1985, allowing dancers to explore Streb’s “POPACTION” techniques both in the laboratory/studio and in performances held across the country. According to Streb’s website, “POPACTION” pulls from the disciplines of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus, and Hollywood stunt-work.
Streb notes of her work, “My dancers and I see the rehearsal as a laboratory for testing scientific principles on the body. We invent action ideas which we think are archetypal, noticeable, understandable. The outcome is a mixture of slam dancing, exquisite and amazing human flight and a wild action sport which captures kids, older people and the general public’s hearts and minds and bodies.”
Filmed over the course of a year, Born to Fly explores the evolution of Streb’s work and the development of her movement philosophy. The film includes both current and historical footage, highlighting Streb’s home life with her partner and family as well as footage from STREB rehearsals and performances. The film culminates with several feats performed at the 2012 London Olympics, with STREB dancers flying off the edge of the Millineum Bridge or hanging off the spires of a spinning London Eye.
The film is rife with the stories of Streb’s dancers as well, with backgrounds as diverse as musical theatre, acrobatics, and gymnastics. The audience watches as they walk on walls, dive through glass, chase a spinning metal pylon around a revolving stage. The film challenges the viewer to imagine themselves in the work, and to think about the kind of strength and determination pursuing Streb takes. We see the broken bodies of the dancers, smiling as they recount their most recent performance, revering Streb and saying they’re having the time of their lives. Even DeeAnn Nelson, who shattered her spine as a STREB dancer in 2007, recounts her time with STREB wistfully and joyfully, seeing it as the highlight of her career.
Though she now choreographs others instead of participating herself, Streb is honest about her struggle with the work and the demands she makes of her dancers. The audience sees Streb caught between her artistic vision and the responsibilty which is part and parcel of the loyalty and love her work inspires in those who live it. We see Streb asking others to go further and fall harder than they ever have before. Born to Fly challenges audiences to think about what counts as dance, as art. Where the limitations of the human body lie.
Watching Streb’s dancers soar and fall, audiences are invited to muse on Streb’s assertion that where there is no danger, there is no growth. This film is a must-see for anyone interested in art, dance, movement, or the limits of the human experience. Were we all really born to fly? There’s one more chance for you to decide, as the film’s final SXSW showing is March 14 at 4:30pm at the Vimeo Theater in Austin.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 03/14/2014.