BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity
(Film Forum, September 10 – 23)
Catherine Gund’s documentary of Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Company is part biopic, part adventure film, and part travelogue, taking viewers from the company’s early years to Streb’s more recent one day occupation of London where she staged her own super high-risk version of the Olympics. Before the film opened in New York, the choreographer met with the Rail’s Nancy Dalva.
Nancy Dalva (Rail): What we see up there. Is that you?
Elizabeth Streb: Yeah, it’s me. Does it look like me? Does it remind you of me?
Rail: It’s a movie about you, but you exhibit a curious absence of what usually passes for ego. Or perhaps it’s just a larger scale ego that dispenses with the trivial.
Streb: I like that. That would be the good news, right? It’s really more about the essence of my movements than it is about me or my persona. I’m unaware of my persona. I am not performing at any time. I am trying to be. At that point when the movie ends—I didn’t even sleep that night. It was me in my most essential second-to-second existence.
Rail: Were you aware of the cameras?
Rail: Did you edit yourself as you went, somehow?
Rail: Did you have any involvement in the post-production, or have any approval of the final cut?
Streb: No. I gave Catherine and her team carte blanche. It was about getting outside the context of those who know me or my work. To get outside the context of me or knowing the work is really what this is all about. People stood in lines to see this film at film festivals. To be first in the season at Film Forum feels again like an absolutely thrilling chance to tell a wider audience about these ideas and the people willing to accomplish these ideas. Some of the people in this movie are the people the movement happened to. We had this experience of extreme movement.
Rail: That moment when you are about to walk down the curved facade of London’s City Hall—from so high up—were you scared?
Streb: Yeah, I was really scared. More of failure or that my rope was going to break. Even with Trisha’s walk down the Whitney [Trisha Brown’s “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building,” which Streb performed in New York City, at the Whitney Museum] I knew that if the guys let go of the rope—
Rail: Is it about trust?
Streb: You abandon trust. It’s just a detail. But I did think, “This is going too far.”
Rail: Do you feel that way now?
Streb: It’s over; it’s immaterial.
Rail: Would you do it again?
Streb: I would do it again, yes. I pray for the next opportunity to be that extreme or that crazy. If you believe in the present tense as being the subject of any presentation of extreme movement, there is, for sure, no time for reflection, or to even notice that I am rather than I do. There’s the next step and the next step. It was the most outrageous experience—all I did to prepare for that walk was to get hung up on a wall. Why does movement have to be on a stage or in a place you go to see it? Movement! A flash in the sky as you walk down the street. A body where you don’t expect it.
Rail: In the beginning, your work was you. Does it feel separate from you now?
Streb: I guess the answer would have to be yes because I am trying to discover something in the world that is true, not something I suspect beforehand. I am not very sentimental or very hopeful, so I don’t care. It can exist without me, but it’s nothing without the dancers who have helped build it.
Rail: Isn’t your work answering a series of questions you give yourself? What are you asking now?
Streb: How do we make movement relevant? What movement is relevant? I no longer believe you can connect moves, I believe they start and stop. Ballet and modern dance go up, but they don’t land. And this thing about dancing to the music is utterly idiotic to me—that just isn’t a good enough reason unless somebody loves music. When I poke at questions I don’t ever really feel I answer them—if the questions are deep enough. That’s my goal: to figure out what question.
Rail: Is the movie one of the propellers?
Streb: Again, the movie is not my work. It’s a really great introduction for the majority of the humans in the world who don’t know Streb. I am honored that Catherine decided to make it. She’s been graceful, and remains curious, and we’ve had a great time. I am curious about the audience, so I sit there and try to get a sense of what they respond to. I sat through every screening at every film festival. It’s been very informative. It’s really exciting—you can feel it in the audience. The movie encapsulates action.
NANCY DALVA is the Scholar in Residence of the Merce Cunningham Trust, which this year celebrates the Merce Cunningham Centennial.