I was terrified for the first 15 minutes of watching Born to Fly. Okay, maybe for closer to 30 minutes. For much of the documentary film by Emmy-nominated director Catherine Gund, you watch dancers with the STREB dance company fling their bodies across the stage, landing loudly on their backs or stomachs with hard thuds. They leap around giant iron beams and slam against hard plastic screens. Thanks to beautiful cinematography from Albert Mayles, who’s made 36 films and helped create the narrative nonfiction film genre, you feel the height in every jump and the fragility in the bodies moving fast through time and space. There’s little music and instead, it’s the performers’ grunts and thuds that accompany the movement, so even on film, it’s hard not to wince and seriously fear for the safety of those on screen.
If you’ve ever struggled to appreciate avant-garde artistry, Born to Fly is the movie to see. The film, which premiered March 8 at the SXSW festival, explores the artistic vision of choreographer Elizabeth Streb, a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" winner who created this form of dance she calls “pop action.” It bears little in common with tap shoes or pink tutus. Instead, performances incorporate a massive amount of hardware; sturdy bodies, male and female, get strapped in harnesses and run through giant wheels, sometimes showing more force than grace. Early in the movie, Streb, whose spiky hair and black clothes don’t quite match her intense, serious demeanor, explains her goal of challenging the limitations of gravity and the human body to achieve something transformational. “You have to get beyond the barrier of self-protection before you can really fly,” she tells the camera.
Just watching other people leave their caution behind can be scary to those of us who prefer to remain rooted to the ground. Helping the audience to get beyond that fear to appreciate the movement is the film’s central accomplishment. It's no small feat. Even those familiar with avant-garde choreographers like Merce Cunningham or Twyla Tharp will find Streb’s work to be on a different page. Since arriving in New York in the 1980s, Streb has always involved props in her movements—first balls, hoops, and sticks, later harnesses and vertical walls. Streb only stopped dancing herself when, in her late 40s, she began to feel the focus became too much on her age—45 is ancient in dance years—rather than the movement itself. Now she choreographs for her dance company; her dance notebooks are a series of sketches for contraptions that allow dancers to go faster or higher.
The dancers’ stories and experiences figure prominently into the movie. Streb calls her company “Extreme Action Heroes” and in performance, they can come close to looking super-human. But in their tiny apartments, sitting with partners, they look young and earnest and vulnerable. Sammi Jakus does her hair in front of the mirror, trying to get it just-so, while Jackie Carlson races the camera crew’s car on bike, laughing as she pedals harder and harder. Carlson, like many of the dancers who have come through Streb, had a career in traditional ballet before finding this new form of movement. None of the dancers have qualms about the risks they encounter, and instead, ooze appreciation for the opportunity to perform in Streb’s productions. “You get a chance to be Elizabeth,” one of them says.
The film is less successful at grappling with the physical risks the dancers take on. We see Streb getting shots in her own knee, while one of the dancers goes to a chiropractor and describes how her body’s started to feel the beatings it takes during performances. But though it’s clear that catastrophe lurks behind each flip off a platform, only one company member has been severely injured, shattering her vertebrae in a gruesome fall. The film focuses on the tragedy of one woman’s dance career cut short, yet refuses to draw any conclusions or lay blame. Streb says she feels responsible, yet the accident never appears to result in major changes to performances. The obvious question—the ethics of asking people to put themselves in peril on a nightly basis—is never fully articulated.
What’s clear is that these people are a unique breed and in Streb, they’ve found a leader. They like to feel extreme sensation: Jackie laughs when her partner describes the bloody patches she gets from performing one solo, and John says even as a kid, he liked to see how long he could go ignore his asthma and without an inhaler. Streb herself describes her pleasure and pride when, as a girl, she was left to hold up a roof for an hour after her father forgot he left her there. Most of us aren’t so willing to put our lives in peril for the sake of exhilaration, but by the end, the assault such choreography takes on our senses—much like the assault it takes on the dancers’ bodies—begins to have a certain kind of beauty.
Streb takes her performers to London for a series of performances ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. At a party, after the dancers have leapt off the Millennium Bridge attached to bungee cords and used harnesses to string themselves along the 500-foot Ferris wheel known as the London Eye, Sammi explains that no one else can know just how it felt. But in Born to Fly, the audience comes as close as the earth-bound can.