Film

In Born to Fly, Elizabeth Streb Conquers the World

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The title’s inexact, but it’s catchier than the truth would be: Born to Strive and Leap and Scrape Up Against Flight. For some 40 years, Elizabeth Streb has pitted herself and her dancers not against gravity but against our earthbound ideas of dance. For Streb and her bounding troupe, gravity’s no enemy — it’s the greatest of all dance partners.

Since her choreography left the ground, Streb has sent her performers, currently known as the Streb Extreme Action Company, soaring over stages worldwide, in trusses or upon reeling apparatuses or just winging out to glide and crash. In clutch-your-heart performance she has demonstrated not that the air is
a domain our bodies might master, but that it is urgent and necessary that we sometimes try to — and also to know
how to angle yourself when the sky chucks you back. Rather than slipping our earthly bonds, Streb and company seize them, soar with them, and then live to do so again.

Squint a little and the Streb troupe’s mass vaulting from trampolines (seen in Born to Fly) might suggest the boom/bloom of fireworks/flowers, but what tickled at my mind as I gaped was a pod of dolphins I once lucked into observing: Again and again they breached, seeming to revel in the launch and the splash, in the joy of motion and of stealing a moment from an element not their own.

These days, Streb’s art suggests stunt work as much as it does dance. What does it say about the state of Hollywood action filmmaking that this year’s most dashing derring-do transpires in a doc about a choreographer? (It’s not for nothing that she titled a book How to Be an Extreme Action Hero.) There’s much in Born to Fly to thrill to, dream with, flinch from: dancers leaping from a great whirling wheel and smacking onto mats far
below; dancers ducking and leaping a wickedly spinning I-beam or cinderblock. Those last performances, each
featuring just a single prop on an austere stage, suggest both high-minded performance art and the anxious, repetitive trials faced by old-school videogame characters.

How did Streb grow from promising downtown choreographer to MacArthur Fellow to deviser of whip-fast torments even Super Mario might blanch at? Catherine Gund’s doc thumbnails the history but avoids much detail, and the questions that richen Streb’s work languish unplumbed: Is this dance? Is this
circus? Is this — witness Streb’s squad caroming into a sheet of thick plastic — cruel? I wasn’t surprised to see Kickstarter thanked in the credits. For all its marvelous performance footage, this is a celebration rather than an examination. Anne Bogart, Bill T. Jones, A.M. Homes, and others show up for a dinner at Streb’s place, but the filmmakers get none of them to discuss her work.

Missed opportunities aside, Born to
Fly
is more than welcome. There’s no discounting the pleasure of catching Streb on the big screen. The finale involves performances in London on the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Streb herself, now in her sixties, dons a truss to walk down the glass face of London’s City Hall. (It’s that ’02 Norman Foster building that looks like an alien’s motorcycle helmet.) At sunset her dancers spider out onto the spokes of the London Eye and cavort there as it spins. Your head will spin with it. New York’s action hero has bested Bond in his own town.