Human beings cannot fly. This is, relatively speaking, a commonly held truth. Yet Brooklyn-based choreographer Elizabeth Streb is not so sure. Her whole career can be seen as a pursuit of flight, though not in the way birds do it. Her work, first as a dancer and now as the head of her own dance company, is all about finding new forms of movement. She goes so far as to call it “action” much more frequently than “dance.” Her performers fling themselves about the stage, dodging I-beams and jumping from enormous wheels. It’s quite the sight.
Presumably the sheer visual triumph of these performances was at least a major part of what inspired Catherine Gund (What’s On Your Plate) to make Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs Gravity. The film is pretty straightforward, following the mold set by many an artistic profile in recent years. Attention is divided between Streb’s biography and her current work in an effort to build as full a portrait as possible. The choreographer is very open about her early days as an aspiring artist, traveling cross-country to take classes and find herself. She began with wide open ambition and voluminous, lengthy hair. Now she has narrowed her focus and become much more interested in blunt physicality. Her style has followed suit, now characterized by black clothes and a short, erect punk haircut.
A number of repeated images stick out in Born to Fly that don’t involve actual dancing, as it turns out. Gund interviews the young dancers in Streb’s company, and follows them as they commute to and from work. It is as if every last one of them travels exclusively by bike, and this becomes a recurring motif. Gund is interested in highlighting the wide scope of the word “action,” a crucial piece of her subject’s philosophy. More than simply creating beauty, Streb is interested in pushing the human body in directions it has not gone before. “Action has not experienced its full potential,” she says.
If Born to Fly has a problem, then, it arises from the difficulty of representing this almost futuristic spirit. The most obvious examples of Streb’s pursuit of the body’s physical potential are the performances themselves, each of them posing a slightly different geometrical demand on the dancers. Yet we often see them from the same angle, in the position of the audience. Obviously they are choreographed to be seen straight on, but there’s a missed opportunity here to use the techniques of cinema to further capture the often brutal and fast-paced character of Streb’s work.
Some of the last sequences, filmed during the company’s time in London prior to the Olympics, begin to experiment with this idea but it never quite becomes an aesthetic of Born to Fly on the whole. Such a formal leap would have been the difference between a solid profile of an artist, primarily worthwhile to those already interested in dance, and a nonfiction film with a substantial amount of artistic merit in its own right.
This review was originally published during the South by Southwest Film Festival on March 13, 2014.