Upcoming Screenings: See Born To Fly at the Cleveland International Film Festival March 28, 29, & 30, and April 3 at the Full-Frame Film Festival in Durham, N.C. Its official theatrical release begins September 10-16 at New York City’s Film Forum.

What comes to mind when you think of dancers? Elegant, graceful ballet? An experimental, intellectual modern dance routine? Swing and other forms of big band dance?

Elizabeth Streb in her home

Elizabeth Streb choreographs action heroes in physical feats of surprising emotional power.

Then there’s the Streb Extreme Action Company, led by Elizabeth Streb, a uniquely talented and passionate choreographer. Using Streb’s “Pop Action Technique,” her “action heroes” defy death by climbing, spinning, dancing with swinging steel I-beams and hurling themselves through the air. Born To Fly, the new documentary from director/producer Catherine Gund, follows Streb and Company as they work toward their most audacious performance: a full day of events to celebrate the London Olympics that culminated with her dancers dangling hundreds of feet in the air from The London Eye.

The Streb heroes are passionate and, if not fearless, unafraid to look the potential consequences of their work in the face. All forms of professional-level dance are hard on the human body (dancers are famous for their feet, often damaged and ugly from repeated injury), yet we think of this art differently from other forms of human achievement. Elizabeth Streb repeatedly compares her work to boxing — when a boxer steps into the ring, it’s not about whether they’ll get hurt but how much. So it is with the Pop Action Technique, designed to prevent serious injuries and minimize others.

In the film, Gund interviews a former Streb dancer, DeeAnn Nelson, who broke her back while performing a relatively routine move in one of the shows. And yet she still looks back on the experience of working with the Extreme Action Company as the high point of her life. As she watches her performers clinging to the supports of one of the world’s tallest merry-go-rounds, the camera catches Elizabeth Streb questioning the ethics of her work. Yet for the unharmed action heroes, it’s a peak experience that could never be matched.

Streb cites her hard-working father as a key influence — because he lived so fully and had used up everything he had by the end of his life. Instead of seeing dance as something elegant, refined and removed from pain, Streb Action Heroes contort, slam, and smash in ways that are both shocking and awe-inspiring. The Extreme Action Company explores universal human truths: the dream of flight, and the reality of falling.

Streb suggests that if there’s no danger, is it art? Though I’m a dance fan already, I found myself surprised at the emotional impact of watching the Streb routines in Born To Fly. Even as impressive as the descriptions sound — dancers hurl themselves through plate glass windows, dance with cement blocks and contort themselves inside a tiny box inspired by the evocatively named medieval torture technique, “Little Ease” — there’s something about the sheer physicality of the physical impact and daring of these action heroes that has to be seen and felt.

A Talk With Catherine Gund and Elizabeth Streb

Streb dancers hurl themselves through the air above a swinging cement block

Streb’s Pop Action Technique is about imagining human flight and embracing falling.

I got to talk with director Catherine Gund and action hero choreographer Elizabeth Streb during their visit to SXSW 2014 in Austin, Texas.

Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: I guess start by telling me about the genesis of this film and how it came together.

Catherine Gund: I am going to tell it a different way this time.

Elizabeth Streb: Well yeah, never the same way!

FDL: That’s good, I like that!

(Everyone laughs)

CG: I had known Elizabeth’s work for years and always gone and taken my kids. I was at an event once and the opportunity presented itself for me to drop a bowling ball from 35 feet in the air into somebody’s hands. They were going to catch it. At first I just thought, ‘Well this is cool because Elizabeth said I could and she’s so cool and it’s her thing and my kids were there …’ It was just cool to participate. But I wasn’t realizing how intense it would be to participate in that for thirty seconds — to do this action, even less than thirty seconds. The actual drop is instantaneous. But it was really confusing and thriling and scary and, in addition to being an honor to get to do it, when I went down and looked at her she said, “I think you really like this stuff.”

And she told me about what was going to happen in London — the end of the film of course — she didn’t say very much. But it was bigger than anything you could describe before. And she said “You should come to London and make this movie together.” So we decided to do it. It really, for me, was about trying to find a way to make other people feel what I felt when I dropped that bowling ball.

FDL: I was certainly struck by it — this is the first time I’ve encountered your work in this film.

ES: Great.

FDL: I was struck by how emotionally intense even watching on film it was. Did you do anything to try to bring that immediacy home for the viewers, were there any special steps you took?

CG: There wasn’t any, I mean it’s not in 3-D.

FDL: Sure!

CG: Which I would like.

FDL: It’d be great!

ES: And you could do 3D so the steel beam scrapes an audience member and they bleed.

(Everyone laughs)

FDL: Extreme!

EB: But not really.

CG: When you put your 3-D glasses on we’ve put fake blood on it so you walk out and everybody’s bloody!

EB: We hand out bandages so you’ve got bandages here, blood here. ‘Oh, you’ve been to a Streb show!’

CG: It’d be like Ash Wednesday last week. Well, to answer that question about how I tried to bring that out in the medium of film was really about contextualizing. It was about getting to know and care about the people — Elizabeth, obviously primarily, but her partner Laura and all of the dancers. I just felt that the more you care about them and learn from them and listen to them, the more the you would care about the work. And hopefully that was true — but that’s how I tried to do that. Because I knew wasn’t just going to film and document the work then translate it to another medium. I didn’t think that would be very effective.

FDL: What do you think about your technique inspires such loyalty and passion in the people you work with, in your action heroes?

ES: Kind of a hard question. Because I deeply attempt not to be manipulative. Because I know I am the boss and with all bosses, there are standard ways you can get people to fall in love with you, to get too personal. And all of that, right from the get-go, in my 20s, in the 70′s, I made a decision not to use that M.O. To stay just on this side of that line.

So over the years I tried to develop a way to respect them, and they know. It’s a complicated question. I don’t care for sardonic comments. I don’t care for gossip. I really encourage people … I hire people that don’t gossip, that aren’t sarcastic. You need those energies out of the room if you’re going to be doing this. Because even a small group, it’s hard to make them a team. And I think that some of the ways I’ve learned to architect atmosphere with humans, not just my dancers but the people who raise the money, run the place, my agent who sells the live shows. We have a relationship, and actually I’m 64 and it’s taken at least 30 years to figure it out — how to choose people that have that potential. That capacity for that level of respect for each other, themselves, me. So there’s lots of different signals when they walk in the room. But they all really believe in what we’re doing, it’s not just me. Although it seems like they me a lot.

But you know, [Associate Director] Fabio [Tavares] — what he said in the film — [when Nelson was injured] he came up to me and asked me to continue the show. I don’t they were necessarily happy about that. And there was a real moment where I go ‘This is rough trade.” But there’s an audience, I’ve taken care of my dancer. I didn’t know then how badly she’d been hurt and … the show went on! That’s my job.

So it’s a combination I think but in the end people, dancers, respect that it isn’t just “until things go wrong I want you do this and then when things go wrong, I want you to stop.” Because that isn’t taking care of people, I don’t really believe that. The build up of everything they do, has to do with understanding we’re all in this together and the importance of this physical message will get out there and we’re all dedicated to it.

A little like the — I was raised Catholic, so I have all these missionary terms. “We’re missionaries and we’re taking action to the people!” But you can’t in a plastic way take action to the people.

CG: But I think it’s definitely experience and it’s also a little bit of luck. I think that Hope, her former dancer who speaks in the film and reads a letter to the dancers, earlier in the film I think she really puts her finger on it, at least speaking for some of the dancers, is she just says, “Nobody else has ever allowed me to be my most powerful self.” And then the other former dancer, DeeAnn says a similar thing, “I did not feel that before” — you want to call it magic, love, this incredible intensity of passion — however you identify it that kind of special thing that doesn’t happen every day, she says “I didn’t have that before Elizabeth.” And I think that’s part of why people don’t want to leave is they don’t know how they’re going to catch it again.

When will I ever catch that magic again? Is that art? What is that? Transference? Their own willing transference even if Elizabeth isn’t trying to create that. And in the end I think it’s something about the content of her brain, which is her work. That people see that as this magic place that allows them to experience things that they can get nowhere else. And DeeAnn says also in the film, “When you’re dancing for Elizabeth you get to be Elizabeth.” And I’ve heard that a little from some of the viewers, that watching the film just for those 82 minutes you get to be Elizabeth. You get to be whatever that means to you. You don’t get to look as cute or necessarily dress in black or have spiky hair …

FDL: (Laughing)

CG: But you get to be somebody who’s going to push yourself as far as you can go. Further than you thought you could go.

FDL: In the film you talk about how collaborating with a photographer changed your work. How did collaborating on the film change your work?

ES: Seeing it afterwards has really taught me the whole rise and fall and rise of the development of my whole Pop Action Streb Technique. I didn’t understand it as deeply as I do now, ironically enough, I’ve been in there …

FDL: You were too close to it.

X-Ray of a dancer's broken back

DeeAnn Nelson broke her back while performing with Streb.

ES: I’m too close to it. I understand the trajectory now. I think about the past but the present is so overwhelming it doesn’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything really. But when I see it in the film, Cat has been able to demonstrate a trajectory that I can’t piece together. I’ve also learned that I am enormously respectful of how hard that process is. I don’t know how she was able to get that one sentence to go with that one image, or that one series of moves. I sort of say I couldn’t have said it better myself in the order of events and all that. It’s not a narrative, exactly. But it’s event event and then this happened — I’m still mystified by how moved I am by every time I’ve seen it.

Also, some of it was hard, to listen to the dancers —  even little things like, you know, how much they make, and how you’ll be ruined by the end of it, but people say ‘Hey you’re still walking around, you’re still talking, you can still think in a straight line, you didn’t destroy yourself …’ But you know that’s part of it.

The perception, what I see in that film is the good, the bad, and the ugly and you know I’m the ugly. I’m an ugly person.

CG: And also the good!

ES: I’m all of those things together. But it’s so moving to see it. If you just took all those parts out — even the X-Ray of DeeAnn’s back … you know what I mean? That work did that to her, and I like to take responsibility for that. So it’s a profound experience. I didn’t answer the question really.

CG: But it’s a huge huge gift, because I don’t think other films that are more directly a tribute, or a profile, or a portrait, or an autobiography, those don’t have the benefit of being able to elicit these visceral responses in viewers, and the reason we do is because we all know we’re a complicated people. There’s no one who is this kind of … I can’t listen to myself on the answering machine, so that is hard. You don’t want to hear your voice, you don’t want to see your face, and so I think now when I watch it — the third or fourth time with her — and I’m thinking if I were her I’d think “Oh I’m saying that again, just like that? And it’s always going to sound the same way?” I don’t want it to be something that says This Is The Story, I want it to be something that continues her story.

I’m really grateful to her as a person. I don’t think it was that conscious a decision to say “I’m not going to be self-conscious.” The fact that we were able to make the movie we made was her letting me be my most powerful self, and I appreciate that too.

ES: And we did that together, in an unplanned way. Because when you plan things out they usually –

CG: Neither of us is a planner.

ES: We are.

CG: We are but only about certain things.

ES: And there you were in London … I think we could talk about this for days and days because it was almost like a magical journey. I’d be on this road and turn and there you were, you’d put a mike on me but I’d be doing something else even while you were miking me up.

CG: For example — this is the sound person who shows up today, they’re going to put a mike on you. She never stopped or complained. Or said, “only mike me from this time to this time.” I mean, that’s unusual I would imagine for a filmmaker to get to work with someone — it’s not like she’s haphazardly un-self-conscious, like she’s too scattered to know about what’s going on. It’s a lack of sentimentality and it’s a focus on her work. “This is my goal, this is what I’m doing and what you’re doing’s not going to get in the way of that so I’m going to keep focusing on that. If you want to put a mike on that’s fine, do it because this is what I’m doing.”

It was “parallel play,” like we say with toddlers!

ES: I am also pretty disciplined. I know we’re in public at [performances] all the time so I don’t start telling weird events out of order. And I try to keep my focus on the thing itself. What we’re doing. Which could have been very tedious, work work work, but Catherine made it such a moving journey in the words she caught, even when they got said.

FDL: You talk about if there’s not physical risk involved, it’s not worthwhile. Do you think there’s an equivalent sort of danger in other forms of art or do you think there’s something unique about what you’re doing?

ES: I don’t think there’s anything unique about what I’m doing, it’s just my point of view. Well, physical danger, it’s easier to say that sentence about. I think the drama exists in getting too close to the edge of your space — as much as we demonstrate that simply with the I-beam, and intersections of time and space. We can demonstrate how it would not be OK to be at a particular spot at a particular moment, and how close can you push that where the audience comprehends in a non-rhetorical way, in a direct way, in I think a profound way, that I-Beam is telling the truth about space and time more vividly than me giving you an Einsteinian lecture on Relativity, which is also true about time and space.

CG: But it’s also interesting how Elizabeth’s work is a hybrid of circus, and sports and this and that. But there’s a way that sports and circus have something in common that — one commonality is that people are like, “Are they going to be able to do it?” So in the circus they try to look like it’s not hard at all, but you know they’re risking certain things like are they going to fall down, and in sports, you want to know — is he going to make it all the way up or is he going to crack his head open right in front of us?

In Elizabeth’s work I think she’s narrowing that line a lot, because the point in watching her work isn’t to see if they can do it, it’s to see what they can do. Because she’s already thought it through, and she’s said, “Ok you guys practice on this, and once you practice we’re going to figure out what’s possible and then we’re going to show people what’s possible.” So they don’t have to — the risk is real, but the risk is almost more real because it’s a smaller margin of possibility, it’s choreographed. That is the difference and I think you feel it in the film. There’s a huge difference between rehearsal and performance.

ES: I wanted to just add one thing. Everyone says in the art world, “People will come if we educate the public.” And for me I’m grabbing from a scenario of physicality that everybody already knows. You don’t have to come into a Streb show and read a modern dance book. I’m talking about physicality as we each encounter it.

I often say, anyone who has ever slipped on a banana peel will understand this work.

A Streb Dancer bent to hang horizontally above the floor.

In Born To Fly, Streb Action Heroes often seem to defy gravity.

Images courtesy of Born To Fly, used with permission.

Thanks to Dana Sayre for her assistance with this article.