By: Gesilayefa Azorbo
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is a comprehensive portrait of a controversial figure in the dance world and beyond.
Director Catherine Gund has created an in-depth exploration of the principles and people behind a unique dance ideology, pop action, which was created and developed by dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Streb beginning in the 1980s in New York City. Streb is the founder of Streb Extreme Action Company, a dance troupe that performs exhilarating, gravity defying stunts, working out of a former industrial building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Through a series of fascinating interviews with the charismatic, perennially black-clad choreographer and her eclectic mix of dancers, as well as archival footage from the early days of her practice, you begin to get a sense of what pop action essentially means to them.
More than just a style of dancing, it is at its core a philosophical debate around the notions of space, time and the human perception of such, translated into explosive physical movement that transcends traditional ideas of what dance is or can be, and which continually pushes the boundaries of what a human body is capable of doing.
Not without dangers, its proponents and practitioners – who call themselves action heroes, after “pop action” – are acutely aware of the risks involved, especially as dancers whose bodies are their livelihoods. And the film does not shy away from exploring the consequences when things do go horribly wrong. Yet each Streb dancer is propelled by something forceful within themselves that seeks an outlet through the powerful, punishing movements. And, they find a kindred spirit in Elizabeth Streb.
An exhilarating spectacle of a film, it combines rehearsal footage, candid observational shooting during the lead up to a series of gravity-defying showcases during the London 2012 Olympics (including synchronized bungee jumping off the London Millennium Bridge and dancing while suspended from the top of the London Eye), and scenes culled from filmed performances over the years, as well as archival photos, video, and news clippings.
Yet the film also affords intimate glimpses into the lives of both Elizabeth herself and the members of her dance troupe. As the camera follows them from rehearsals, to doctor appointments, to personal moments with their partners at home, you get a sense of the all encompassing nature of life as a Streb dancer, but you also come away with the sense that none of them would have it any other way.
Watching the film and seeing the dancers’ sheer exertion of effort, will and discipline towards goals that are as fleeting as they are magical becomes an unexpected exercise in learning to live in the moment and learn from it. One of the quotes that stuck with me is from former Streb dancer, Hope Clark. In an open letter to the dancers which she reads on camera, she says, “Find out what it is you love about what you’re doing now, and try to carry it with you when you leave, for that is what you’ll have – your experiences and your memories.”
And, during one interview, Streb says of the inherent risk in what they do, “If things aren’t on some level really dangerous, I don’t believe you’ll ever really discover anything that you don’t already know.”
Intense, visceral and profound, this is a film I believe every dancer should see. But also, everyone who has a body. Seriously. It might change the way you think about risk, persistence, and the true rewards in exploring the boundaries of your own capabilities.
I know it did for me.