SXSW Film Review – Born To Fly

Born To Fly

Born To Fly

“I never had any trouble with the take-off. It’s landing that’s the problem.” – Evel Knievel

Elizabeth Streb knows who she is. Director Catherine Gund (who is premiering her documentary Born To Fly at this year’s SXSW Festival) knows who Streb is as well and stepped to the plate to share her story with the world.

Streb grew up in Rochester. New York and developed an early interest in the art of dance. Bored with the gentler connotations associated with common dance, she pursued it from a decidedly more experimental point of view. Hints of subtle emotional abuse in her youth speak to her drive to express. Impress. To challenge herself and the oodles of equally-driven performers she takes under her wing. She’s like a lower-risk Tyler Durden, trading in mayhem for a sort of beautiful, choreographed chaos.

Born To Fly Movie Still 1

She arrived to New York City in 1975 with 400 dollars to her name and no practical work skills. No bother. Streb charmed her way into a cooking job despite a total lack of experience and, wouldn’t you know it, she was a natural. From there, she created her first dance company, STREB / Ringside. Her work was abrasive and powerful. The New York Times even ran a piece identifying Streb’s performances as “witty,” high praise she clearly treasures to this day.

The doc focuses primarily on Elizabeth but makes ample room for those she’s taught. In a world as focused and small as their own, it becomes immediately evident her students are drawn to her like to a spikey-haired, progressive Mother Hen. We learn enough about the backgrounds of each who are showcased to understand what brought them here and the determination that keeps them here.

Streb herself might be reluctant or modest enough not to call it a movement but “Pop Action,” which she instituted, is an impressive and often terrifying series of feats. We see rehearsals in which dancers rhythmically duck under a rotating steel beam. Every few seconds narrowly avoiding direct and fast impact, no one looks like they’d rather be anywhere else. Some performances culminate in propelling through a plate of glass, masterful and horrifying. Speaking on behalf of the squeamish, I covered my eyes as much watching this as any run-of-the-mill slasher movie. At least in the case of Born To Fly, there are stakes.  One student in particular shares a harrowing story that could easily make you question the nobility of this cause, but goddamn if her perpetual optimism and positive outlook doesn’t inspire.

Born To Fly Movie Still 2

The film culminates with “One Extraordinary Day,” in conjunction with the London 2012 Olympic Games. Among other “actions,” Streb and/or her crew of dancers bungee jumped from the Millennium Bridge and attached themselves to every other spoke of the EDF Energy London Eye. The spectators were properly enamored and Streb’s performers were equally exhilarated. A high that cannot be matched.

The screener for this fell into my lap and if it hadn’t I would still be unaware of Elizabeth Streb and her myriads of accomplishments. Some might consider Born To Fly fawning and uncompromising in its clear love for her, but I advise you to see it for yourself and dare you not to feel the same.




Nick's eyes were opened to a film's capabilities with his first viewing of L.A. Confidential and he's spent every day since then doggedly pursuing impactful movies big and small.

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