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Film Review: ‘Born to Fly’

This fascinating documentary depicts avant-garde choreographer Elizabeth Strep as both visionary and ringmaster.

Elizabeth Streb, DeeAnn Nelson, Jackie Carlson, Leonardo Giron, Sarah Callan, Felix Hess, Samantha Jakus.

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb extols the virtues and values of dance as contact sport, carnival sideshow and high-risk daredevilry in “Born to Fly,” a biographical portrait of the artist as a demanding ringmaster. Filmmaker Catherine Gund’s intriguing documentary offers an admiring view of Streb and her indefatigable efforts to create spectacular displays of what she calls “pop action” with the acrobatic dancers of her Brooklyn-based Streb Extreme Action Company. Even so, the movie — best suited for festival and pubcast showcases — may leave some skeptical audiences viewing Streb as something roughly akin to a cult leader, complete with Kool-Aid-sipping disciples.

Gund emphasizes Streb’s controlling tendencies early on, in an amusingly revealing sequence that shows the choreographer — a bespectacled and spiky-haired dynamo in her early 60s — meticulously plotting the seating arrangements for a diner party she’s preparing with her partner. Later, as Streb waxes enthusiastic about routines in which dancers risk — and in a few cases, actually suffer — serious injury, the choreographer pre-emptively dismisses any criticism of her methodology: “Anything that’s too safe is not action, in my opinion.”

Judging from the excerpts of her company’s performances that are scattered throughout “Born to Fly,” “safe” would be last on the list of adjectives to describe Straub’s work. Her dancers hurl themselves against Plexiglas walls, duck to avoid spinning I-beams, dodge concrete blocks hanging from ropes inches over their heads, drop from varying heights onto what appear to be barely adequate safety mats, and generally engage in activities that might be deemed too dangerous for battle-scarred stuntmen. The documentary’s grand finale is a series of breathtaking feats — “walking” down the sides of buildings, dangling from an immense Ferris wheel, etc. — performed as public performance art prior to the 2012 London Olympics.

It should be noted that Streb’s dancers seem every bit as obsessed as the choreographer herself while expressing profound gratitude for the chance to risk life and limb in their collaborations. Indeed, when dancer DeeAnn Nelson describes a career-ending injury she suffered while performing with Streb’s troupe — she quite literally broke her back — she sounds almost apologetic for interrupting the routine.

Likely to generate fascination and uneasiness in equal measure among viewers heretofore unfamiliar with Streb’s work, “Born to Fly” teasingly suggests that some displays of avant-garde virtuosity could be enjoyed equally by venturesome aesthetes, dance enthusiasts and devotees of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Film Review: 'Born to Fly'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 14, 2014. (Also in Cleveland, Full Frame film festivals.) Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Aubin Pictures production. Produced by Catherine Gund, Tanya Selvaratnam.

Crew: Directed by Catherine Gund. Camera (color), Kristen Johnson, Albert Maysles, Ian McAlpin; editor, Alex Meillier; music, Adam Crystal; sound, Russell Edwards; associate producer, Jessica Ruffin.

With: Elizabeth Streb, DeeAnn Nelson, Jackie Carlson, Leonardo Giron, Sarah Callan, Felix Hess, Samantha Jakus.

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