borntofly-posterI watched Catherine Gund’s riveting new documentary Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity with my mouth hanging open. I’m not kidding. For those of you who’ve never seen the superhuman feats of Streb’s New York-based dance company in person, you simply won’t believe what you’re seeing on the screen. Can humans fly? They come pretty damn close when they’re under the tutelage of 64-year-old Elizabeth Streb. Often called the Evel Knievel of dance, she is a pioneer of a movement form called “POPACTION” which explores both the physical and emotional aspects of human potential. Streb expands our notions of movement while exploring the intersections of dance, performance, and stunt-work. She also looks at how fear might enhance our own life experiences. But the work of this MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient isn’t only about bodies and adrenaline. Streb also uses choreography to demonstrate the power and complexities of age, gender, class, and race —  both for her dancers and her audiences. I was inspired and awe-struck by this remarkable documentary which includes archival film of Streb’s choreography over the years as well as footage (filmed by renowned documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles) of STREB: One Extraordinary Day, an event that took place during the 2012 Summer Olympics in which Elizabeth and a team of 32 dancers performed seven “actions” on the London cityscape, including walking down the outside walls of City Hall, bungee jumping from the Millennium Bridge, and attaching all of the dancers to the spokes of the gigantic London Eye Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames.

I spoke with Elizabeth Streb and Catherine Gund before the film’s L.A. release. 

streb-gundDanny Miller: I was blown away by everything I saw in Born to Fly. Does the finished film resemble what you thought it would be when you started this project?

Elizabeth Streb: I really had no idea what the story would look like through Catherine Gund’s eyes. I was worried that there’d be too much footage of me yakking but I felt she chose the all the moments that really were about the nature of the work. I feel very honored by the film and extremely moved by it.

I can’t remember a film that conveys the artistic process more beautifully and articulately. Catherine, did making the film change your own views about art?

Catherine Gund: Absolutely. I hadn’t made films about art or artists before — my films are mostly about social and political issues. So it was great to try to convey what I knew in my heart were the transformational qualities of art, the possibilities that art brings to the world. Seeing how Elizabeth and the dancers are able to embrace fear and move past it made me feel that I can be more brave in my own life. I think the way they use their fear is so important in this world where fear motivates so many of our decisions.

Elizabeth, I think your choreography has so much to offer people in terms of how they see themselves and others. When I watched the amazing events in London during your One Extraordinary Day, I kept thinking how great it would be to do similar installations in cities all over the world, especially ones where there is a lot of strife. There’s something so powerful about seeing these vulnerable creatures scaling world-famous monuments.

Elizabeth: We actually have designs in place to go to many different cities. We’re hoping we’ll find a way to make that happen!


I love that you used your own dancers as well as locals in the London event. To get people from opposing sides of major conflicts to participate in such an activity —  talk about stripping everything else away! Who knows — maybe you can use your art to help bring about world peace — that’s not too tall an order, is it?

Catherine: I love it!

Elizabeth: (Laughs) I don’t know, Danny, but I’ll think about it! “Choose Flight, Not Guns” — how about that?


I did feel that what we did that day in London cracked open a whole new universe. I would love to do that on an even grander scale.

Do you ever feel a pressure of having to “top” yourself?

I definitely felt that way in the early years. I was always wondering what I needed to do to really make an impact so I didn’t just fade into oblivion. There’s always a danger of repeating yourself. But I don’t really feel that way anymore.

Apart from the obvious physical qualifications, what do you look for in your dancers?

Our auditions are a very intense three-day process. One of the things I always notice is whether they’re paying attention to everything that is happening around them and if they’re watching other people. Are they curious? Are they thinking, “Gee, I can learn from that person?” Not, “Okay, I’m done with my audition, now I’m going to look at my iPhone.” If I see any of that, it’s a done deal. I look for people whose presence is almost like that of a wild animal in the jungle — looking around and listening to the sounds. I want people who are bestial creatures as well as enormously profound and willing to put themselves in very complicated physical situations.


Watching the film, it’s hard not to fall  in love with every company member that we meet.

Catherine: It was really hard to edit down the footage with the dancers — I think I could have made a whole movie about each and every one of them. They just continued to amaze me as I got to know them better, not only in the rehearsals with Elizabeth but in the more intimate moments when we were recording them in their homes. They all put their bodies so far out there for us, they were so generous with their willingness to go to these lengths to create an emotional response with the audience, so then when you say, “Can I also hang out with you during your rest time,” they were like, “What?” But they all did. I think their willingness and curiosity extends into the intellectual realm, they’re not just unexamined bodies being tossed around — they are more enlightened and composed than almost anybody else that I know. It was really great to see that.

Is there anything you wished you could have included more of in the film?

We see Elizabeth with her partner in the film, but I would have loved to have included more of Laura, both as a person and because her understanding of Elizabeth’s work is so brilliant and compelling. I would have also loved to have included even more of Elizabeth’s drawings. I’m glad that in parts of the film we were able to overlay her drawings with the work, they are really incredible.

I’d like to thank you for ruining the Cirque du Soleil for me. Compared to what this company is doing, those performers look like my five-year-old playing in the backyard!

Catherine: (Laughs.) You’re welcome.

Elizabeth: Please come to our space in Brooklyn and see more of what we’re doing!

Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is playing in select cities. Click here to see when it’s coming to a theater near you. Note that Elizabeth Streb and Catherine Gund will participate in Q&As at the NoHo Laemmle Theater after the 7:30 pm screening on Friday, September 26, and after the 1:00 pm screening on Saturday, September 27.