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.

More Film

  • MPAA Logo

    Motion Picture Association of America Hires Emily Lenzner as Communications Chief

    The Motion Picture Association of America has appointed veteran public relations executive Emily Lenzner as its executive VP of global communications and public affairs. She will report to Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin and oversee the trade group’s communications team in the U.S. and internationally. Lenzner will start Aug. 1 and be based at the MPAA’s [...]

  • See Taylor Swift Unveil Feline Moves

    See Taylor Swift Unveil Feline Moves for First Time in 'Cats' Behind-the-Scenes Teaser

    Taylor Swift fans finally get to see some of the results of all those years spent studying her roommates Meredith and Olivia — and also, not incidentally, some time with a choreographer — in a new behind-the-scenes teaser for the movie “Cats.” The three-and-a-half-minute featurette has footage of Swift striking crouching feline moves as well [...]

  • Empty movie theater

    Immersive Theater Technology Set for US Debut in Los Angeles

    French multiplex company CGR Cinemas has selected the Regal LA Live as the first U.S. theater to use its Immersive Cinema Experience technology. The ICE format will be unveiled in the fall at the downtown location in a partnership between CGR and AEG. The companies made the announcement Wednesday but did not reveal which title [...]

  • Amazon Developing Original Series Based on

    Amazon Studios Buys 'Selah and the Spades,' Will Develop Original Series (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has acquired worldwide rights to “Selah and the Spades,” a gripping look at a prep school drug dealer, Variety has learned. The film marks the feature debut of writer and director Tayarisha Poe and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it was a favorite with critics. Amazon has [...]

  • The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con

    The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con Parties and Activations

    Hollywood is heading down the California coast to San Diego because It’s time for 2019 Comic-Con International. The annual cosplay celebration officially kicks off tomorrow, July 18, with a preview happening tonight. Here, Variety gives you a guide to this year’s parties and activations. Make sure to check back for updates. Wednesday, July 17Amazon Prime [...]

  • The Wound African Cinema Berlin Film

    Finance Forum Brings African WIP Into Focus at Durban FilmMart

    The 10th edition of the Durban FilmMart, which unspools parallel to the 40th Durban Intl. Film Festival, will feature 10 fiction and 10 documentary works-in-progress taking part in its annual Finance Forum. The leading co-production market on the continent, the Forum brings together producers, distributors, sales agents, broadcasters, funding bodies, and other industry players from across the [...]

  • The Lion King

    'The Lion King' Looks to Roar Life Into Domestic Box Office

    Hollywood just can’t wait for “The Lion King” to hit theaters. That’s because Disney’s highly anticipated remake is expected to draw herds of moviegoers at a time when ticket sales are seriously struggling. Box office watchers predict that the studio’s grand return to the Pride Lands could become one of this year’s biggest hits. “The [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content