Born to Fly: SXSW Review

Catherine Gund
Doc focuses on an uncategorizable career more than on the strange work it has produced

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb explains her daredevil approach to dance.

AUSTIN — Elizabeth Streb isn't everyone's idea of a choreographer. The pieces she has generated in New York since the 1980s have as much in common with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic feats and performance art as with modern dance. Showing how the spiky-haired sexagenarian has used uncategorizability to her benefit, Catherine Gund's Born to Fly works very well as a portrait of a maverick artistic sensibility, even if it will leave some viewers wanting more in terms of performance footage. Fest audiences will find it lively and sometimes visceral; beyond fests, arts-minded TV outlets should see it as a natural fit.

At Streb's Williamsburg theater/studio, a troupe of buff performers (many would be too stout for classical ballet) enacts routines that sometimes suggest a meeting of Busby Berkeley and Looney Tunes violence: they pop up and down as a spinning I-beam threatens to break their skulls, they thwack their bodies against a transparent wall, they fly off spinning contraptions to land on a not-so-soft-looking safety mat.

Streb describes these routines in terms of something called "Pop Action," and Gund doesn't quite get her to explain what she means by that term. What we do understand is Streb's desire to "invent movement" that no one has seen before, and to put it in context of a dance avant garde dating back at least to Trisha Brown, who used ropes and harnesses to let performers walk down walls as if they were sidewalks.

Interviews with current and former Streb dancers — one of whom broke her back in the service of a routine — emphasize the toll these actions take. While it's tempting to judge the artist harshly for what she asks of her underpaid employees, Streb points out that bullriders, circus clowns and boxers take similar risks as a matter of course. (Multiple portraits of Muhammad Ali adorn her studio's walls.) Those comparisons invite scrutiny of Streb's high-art claims, and Gund chooses not to include any outside voices who might question the artistic merit of this body of work.

Whether one calls it art, sport, or mere entertainment, some of it makes for jaw-dropping viewing. If much of the performance footage here cuts away before we're quite satisfied, a long section at the end compensates for that: On the eve of the 2012 London Olympics, Streb mounted a day of stunts culminating in one where the massive London Eye became a spinning stage for her death-defying dancers. Here more than anywhere in the film, one understands the elation that must balance the risks Streb's troopers undertake.

Production Company: Aubin Pictures

Director: Catherine Gund

Producers: Catherine Gund, Tanya Selvaratnam

Directors of photography: Kirsten Johnson, Albert Maysles, Ian McAlpin

Music: Adam Crystal

Editor: Alex Meillier

Sales: Film Transit International

No rating, 82 minutes