Burn Out Bright, by Sarah Brinks
Sadly, Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is not a sequel to Gravity in which a character named Elizabeth Streb takes on Sandra Bullock’s Doctor Ryan Stone in zero-g. It is, however, the next best thing – a documentary about an extreme modern dance troupe led by choreographer Elizabeth Streb. The Streb Extreme Dance Company is made up of a dozen or so very athletic dancers, gymnasts, and acrobats. The company does a type of dance Streb has named “popaction.” This is a focus on pushing the human body and movement to the extreme. The pieces they perform range from an elaborate routine on a rotating yellow hamster-wheel like machine, throwing themselves against a glass wall, dancing between two cinder blocks swinging like pendulums, and jumping/falling from a great height. I don’t know that all of it can be classified as dance, but it is all pretty incredible.
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity tells the story of where Elizabeth Streb came from and where the company is now. Streb was adopted when she was two. Her adoptive father was a brick layer, and, by the end of his life, sported many scars and maladies. Streb was fascinated by the idea that a body could be used up by the end of life. She danced all her life and finally became a choreographer in New York City in her late twenties. She had already developed part of her strange style of dancing which was focused on pushing the body’s limits and impact on and with the body. She bought a loft and started her own dance studio. They had success getting into New York publications during that time.
These days, Streb is still running her studio and choreographing for her team of “Extreme Action Company” dancers. The film has interviews with many of the current dancers and a few former dancers. The current dancers are all young performers who love the adrenaline and challenge that comes along with being a Streb dancer. They talk about working for Streb and how they trust her and her fellow dancers and they like the challenge “popaction” gives them. One woman who grew up as gymnast talks about the opportunity to embrace her athleticism and how, with Streb, the women have the opportunity to lift the men and do all the things the men can do, which does not happen in traditional dance. One of the male dancers talks about feeling a kinship with Streb because he is adopted as well and often feels like he doesn’t belong as a result.
Since “popaction” is so intense on the body, there is always the looming fear of injury. Streb speaks to that point and says that her dancers don’t let themselves think that way. If you fear injury, you will always hold yourself back, and you cannot achieve “popaction” because it is about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. One of the former Streb dancers that they interview speaks about the issue of injuries. She danced with Streb for years, and loved the freedom and challenge of it. She did a move where she would hang from a glass wall with her legs in a ‘V’ shape and fall on her back still in the ‘V’ shape. She did it a few times and then dislocated her sacrum. Upon returning, during a regular ‘slam’ show, she was doing a fairly low-key routine by ‘Streb’ standards when she lost her footing and fell. She had managed to break her back in a way that usually leaves people paralyzed. However, she was able to recover and can walk and live normally. She doesn’t have any animosity towards the troupe or Streb. She looks back fondly at that time, when she truly pushed her own boundaries.
The last act of the film is dedicated to the seven different pieces they performed at the London Olympics in one day. including jumping off Millennium Bridge, walking down the side of the town hall, and an elaborate act on the spokes of the London Eye. The bridge piece truly tapped into Strebs dream of seeing someone fly. The dancers were on bungee cords, and it was beautiful see them all dance in the air. The truly remarkable piece though was the London Eye. The dancers wore harnesses connected to the spokes of the eye, and danced in the air. Seeing them up close was beautiful, but seeing them far away was awe-inspiring! You see how small the dancers are and how high up they are and how beautiful it is to see them move.
I don’t think Streb’s style of dancing is for everyone, but it is still pretty incredible for its fearlessness and athleticism. The documentary is pretty straightforward but I think that approach is appropriate given the extraordinary nature of the dancing. Streb is an interesting character. She gets a little overly cerebral and pretentious – you have to sit through a dinner conversation where she debates whether you can prove time exists – but it’s just part of her artsy personality. Overall the documentary is well made and showcases an interesting woman and her incredible dance troupe.