“Born to Fly” tells the story of Elizabeth Streb and her pop action performance group

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Elizabeth Streb is fearless. After a successful career as an experimental dancer, the out performer started her own company called Streb, which is her choreography what she calls “pop action.” As she explains in the new documentary about her work, she has an obsession with wanting to fly.

Filmmaker Catherine Gund knew Elizabeth would make an ideal documentary subject, if her friend would let her film all facets of her life, and Born to Fly became a reality. The documentary, in select theaters nationwide, goes home with Elizabeth to her New York apartment with partner Laura Flanders and to the Streb lab where her dancers hurl and contort their bodies in an attempt to create new kinds of “action mechanics.” The cameras go to the dancer’s homes, too, meeting their partners and finding out about their lives outside of Streb, although they are just as much wrapped into it as Elizabeth is when they are a company member.

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Catherine’s production company Aubin Pictures has been behind some of the most important LGBT documentaries of the last three decades, including Not Just Passing Through (1994), Cuz It’s a Boy (1994) and Making Grace (2004). As an out lesbian, Catherine thinks Born to Fly has an innate queerness that isn’t as literal as it may have been in past work.

“I’m glad our community can embrace it as such, and certainly the gay and lesbian film festivals and audiences have shown up,” Catherine said, “but I wanted to be sure that, really, we were able ego focus on universality that came from the specificity of following, Elizabeth and dancers, many of them are queer in different ways, if not all of them, because queerness to me is a much broader notion than a narrow identity. She’s breaking down the definition of dance, we’re trying to break down the definition of queerness, and I’m trying to break down the definition of documentary.”

To be a Streb member, you must have very specific characteristics, as there’s no way to really prepare for the role outside of building mental and physical strength. As shown in the film, the kinds of movements Streb performers are asked to make are completely unconventional, which is part of what makes watching it so incredible.

“We don’t expect people to walk in here and do Pop Action,” Elizabeth said. “It’s not what we expect. They need to have an ever ready body, no chronic anything, and a spirit—the hardest thing to find is a spirit and a curious mind and passion for action. You try and find them all in one body.”

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It’s interesting, then, that several of the dancers who were part of Streb while Born to Fly cameras were following are lesbian-identified.

“Hearing a bit and seeing their lives just regular—that’s the other notion of it being a ‘queer’ film,” Catherine said. “You’ll notice it’s presented as regular lives and it just so happens that all these couples are lesbian couples. Three of the people you see with their partners—Elizabeth and Laura, Jackie and Gina, and Sarah and Kathy—and those just happen to be how it is. It wasn’t that I had to be looking for that, it was more like this is the world we live in. Let’s present this as precisely and accurately and with as much detail as possible and that is going to give us so much more realism so that we can approach the work and really go some place with it.”

In her work, Elizabeth said she never considers the queer aspect as much as she does the gender, but only because it affects how some viewers respond.

“I just am [queer] and always have been,” she said. “I think that performing gender is nothing I’ve ever constituted into the manner of which I ask particular questions about action. I can see as a result—I can see it might be different, if for instance I was blonde guy from Wisconsin, I don’t think the audiences would have said what they said adjective wise for the past 30 years. I think it’s almost more what a woman’s willing to let happen to her body and in an extremely overprotective society which is our culture. It actually has the capacity to destroy how we wander the world freely. I’ve always been interested as a female, but not necessarily as a gay or queer female, to be all I can be, no matter what my gender is.”

The dancers have a strong respect and admiration for Elizabeth, which she said was hard for her to watch when she first saw the film.

“I try and keep a respectful distance between them,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t tell them my thoughts, feelings, dreams and we talk about ideas. It was a little like—’Oh my gosh, I know where they live!’ It’s embarrassing only because I think I’m a better director if I don’t know certain things.”

Elizabeth was initially hesitant about allowing cameras to follow her everywhere, and Catherine remembers Elizabeth feeling that viewers would be “bored to tears” having to watch her at the gym.

“And I’m like ‘The film’s about your body! How can I not show you working out your body?'” Catherine said.

Elizabeth Streb and Catherine Gund"Born To Fly" Photo Op and Q&A - 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival
Elizabeth relented and she is captured working out, going to the doctor and discussing the toll that her work has taken on her now 64-year-old bones. Pain and injury is part for the course in this line of work, and one former dancer who was seriously injured is also part of the film, though she still speaks very highly of her experience rather than discrediting it for how dangerous it can be.

As a director, Catherine is able to give viewers the kind of access they need to fully grasp who Elizabeth Streb is and what her influence on the world has been. Even those who aren’t familiar with the world of dance will be able to appreciate how and why she has the passion to create the kinds of choreography she does, as there is a perfect balance of performance and discussion of it with Elizabeth and her peers. One early scene in the film has Elizabeth and Laura hosting a dinner party for friends like author A.M. Homes and professor Catherine Stimpson.

“It was important in context to show, not just the eccentric coziness, but the humanity and the community of artists and intellectuals in which Elizabeth and this kind of art work exists,” Catherine said. “And so here was this way of putting it into historical context and seeing other people who she grew up with, grew up in the dance world and New York downtown art scene, in the queer world—all these overlapping spaces that were then a part of our lives. The performance that she does of walking down City Hall in London only exists because that dinner also exists. So, for me, you’ve gotta present those two things and mush them in a way that, of course then she goes onto show us all about dancing and choreography through her cooking. That’s part of coherence of actually telling an accurate, detailed story. Life is stranger than fiction, and if you actually tell the real story, you’ll see there are connections between all these things that fascinate us.”

Because they have been friends for years, Catherine and Elizabeth have an intimacy that might not be afforded other documentarians with their subjects. During filming, the two would get together for breakfasts that would last “three or four hours.”

“Sometimes we were talking about the film and sometimes we were talking about her work, and sometimes we were talking about a book we were reading or a meal we’d had the night before. Whatever! Or the news—we talked bout the newspaper a lot,” Catherine said. “We talked and talked and talked and I feel like in that process I was able to convey to Elizabeth how important it was to me that in the exposure, what she exposes her dancers to, is the fearlessness and the bravery that she needs to bring to allow this film to be made. Luckily she did it.

“But there was a way that if you look at the purity and the vulnerability that the dancers and Elizabeth as a dancer go through all the time,” Catherine continued. “I know it’s a bit of a leap but I do think that’s pat of why the film works, frankly, because Elizabeth is as brave and exposed and vulnerable and real and honest and continuing to move forward as she’s asking her dancers to be. And she does it and that’s why people are responding so well. She doesn’t hide and she doesn’t say ‘This is my life, this it the artwork.’ She’s really saying, ‘I’m letting you see my life is my artwork and these two things are inextricable.’ And if she had tried to pull them apart, the film wouldn’t have been what it is.”

One of the most exciting and large scale performances the Streb company makes in Born to Fly is called One Extraordinary Day, where the dancers dove off the Millennium Bridge and performed a dangling movement on the London Eye. The human strength and beauty of it all is breathtaking, especially because it’s close to the end of the film when you’ve had the chance to come to know Elizabeth Streb and each of her dancers as individuals and as a part of such an elite group.

It’s so entrancing that Catherine said she once forgot to have her director’s hat on, and can see why Elizabeth likes to maintain a distance from her dancers that filmmakers don’t often get to have from their documentary subjects.

“There was one time when there was a performance and we were filming,” Catherine said, “And I saw one of the dancers, Jackie, and she had tears. She was sort of behind the stage and she was crying and holding her shoulder. I immediately ran up to her consoling her and asking where to get ice and I got her her ice and she was pulling herself together because she’s going back out there but she was in pain and she wasn’t trying to cry, but she was in what us mortal people call pain, but like, ‘I’m going back out,’ whatever. I don’t even know if you’ve heard this, Elizabeth. And I turn around and go walking back to [the camera operator] and she’s like, ‘Where were you?” And I said, ‘Oh well, Jackie was hurt and I had to get her some ice.’ She’s like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s when you’re supposed to come and get me and bring me over there so I can film what the dancers do when they get hurt.'”

She laughs and continues. “So I think there is this way I’m both trying to get the whole story out and overcompensation in my relationships with people which I think in some ways can translate into a good thing in documentary making, because I’m trying to interview people and pull things out and I’m really trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and show their joy and see the good parts of them and why? Because everybody’s making a difference and making all kinds of interesting decisions and few people have made more interesting decisions than Elizabeth. So it was a thrill to be with her and find that the dancers are like that, too. I was thinking I could make a movie about each one of them! To me it was good to keep my focus on Elizabeth and let my feelers go out and about.”

Visit borntoflymovie.com to find out where Born to Fly is playing near you.

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