When choreographer Elizabeth Streb gives her performance pieces such names as "Impact" or "Ricochet," she's not merely striking a metaphoric pose. As a new documentary about her work makes evident, and viscerally so, Streb believes that "anything too safe is not action."
The dancers in her troupe embrace that ethos; they're athletic warriors bringing a muscular, geometric beauty to extravagant leaps and blows and shockingly close calls with I-beams.
Catherine Gund's documentary "Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity" captures the Extreme Action Company in rehearsal, performance and offstage conversation, all with a vérité immediacy that's in sync with the business at hand. (Prolific documentarian Albert Maysles, whose credits include "Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens," is one of the film's three cinematographers.) On a giant hamster wheel in their Brooklyn studio, and in spectacular feats on London landmarks, performers seemingly defy the laws of physics. Without question they reject conventional notions of what's humanly possible or wise.
Gund pinpoints salient biographical information, in particular the bricklaying job of Streb's adoptive father and how its intense physicality impressed her. Without overstating the case, the director shows the connective tissue between the self-described "action architect" and her artistic family, troupe members who point to pain and rage as ways of feeling fully alive. In a solo piece that Streb herself originally performed — one that takes its gentle-sounding name, "Little Ease," from a medieval torture device — the effect is one of frenzied precision, breathtaking and unforgettable.
Dance purists might dismiss Streb's work as circus gymnastics, but a bracing aesthetic is inseparable from the corporal shocks, as is an insistence on challenging accepted constraints. Through Gund's film, a wider audience stands to be not just amazed but provoked.
"Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.