In conjunction with the opening of Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, the choreographer and director Catherine Gund discuss the making of the documentary in this Time Out New York exclusive interview. The film, which focuses on the STREB company, is currently being screened at the Film Forum.
How did the two of you meet?
Catherine Gund: We met when I was in college, which was about 25 years ago. Elizabeth was a visiting artist, and my best friend was in her dance class. We stayed friends throughout, and we started making the movie a couple of years go.
Why were you inspired to direct this documentary? How did it have to do with you dropping a bowling ball from many feet in the air at a STREB performance?
Gund: The bowling ball! I ended up being the person who was designated to take a bowling ball up 35 feet and sit on a very skinny tress in the middle of a room full of people watching me. There was a man standing below—Zaire Baptiste who is [STREB’S] emcee. He clapped his hands as the signal for me to drop the bowling ball, but right before he did that, two other bowling balls were released from either side and fell faster and faster to the ground and landed on cement blocks and eviscerated them both. Loudly! I could feel the shaking in the room when that happened. He clapped his hands for me to drop my ball. I did hesitate. It wasn’t a natural instinct for me to follow the evisceration of the cement blocks with dropping this bowling ball, but I did it, and I was speechless. After, I looked at Elizabeth, and she said, “Wow, you really liked that. You should come to London and see what we’re going to do there.” [The Olympic events Streb was planning] was under wraps at the time. I just thought, I’ve got to do this. I have to see if I can translate into my medium—film—the same feeling that Elizabeth’s work makes her dancers and viewers feel.
Elizabeth, do you think she achieved that?
Streb: I’m probably the least objective person in the world, but when I saw that film I was thrilled because it was surprising. There are hard stories in there and beautiful, glorious images: It’s the good, bad and the ugly, and I think action—and the type of action STREB did and continues to do—is about the rough, bloody, ugly smelly stuff. I think Catherine went to the heavens and also way down deep into the hellish zones.
The Olympic footage, where you performed daredevil actions at public sites throughout London, is so breathtaking.
Streb: As the seven events happened throughout the day—we never announced it, no one knew about it—there was a whole social media thing so crowds gathered, but the beauty of the accidental encounter and the actual fact of that is how most people encounter real action. It thrust me into a whole other query: Does movement really belong in a theater?
What did each of you want to get across in this film?
Streb: I didn’t have an agenda, but I wanted people to understand not just the dancers’ bravery or fear and why a human would do this, so that it could be a ubiquitous transfer of, Oh, I get it, rather than just it’s hurting people and it’s bad. I wanted people to know my dancers, and I thought it was a beautiful exposition of that. I also was hoping that the trajectory, the whole message of movement wouldn’t be about me. I don’t see this as a film about me. I see it as a film about the power of action in the world. For me, the film gave me hope that there are a whole lot of people interested in action out there and not just extreme sports.
Gund: I would agree. I also wanted to challenge myself, coming from a much more literal, social-justice film-making background in my documentary work, to show why this is important. Is it really as fundamental and basic as I believe it to be? Is it really as universal an application of these feelings and emotions? What we’re doing here comes back to questions of art or of love or even the definition of dance, which Elizabeth exploded or steps outside of or has this interesting relationship to as opposed to just falling in line with it.
You interview former STREB dancer Deanne Nelson, who broke her back during a performance. Was it difficult to get her to talk?
Gund: It wasn’t part of the initial plan. It became clear that I wanted the circle of Elizabeth’s current dancers around her to help describe parts of who she is. I also wanted them to answer why people would do this; because I think when we do see extreme sports, no one asks them why they do it or at least nobody ever says anything beyond, “It’s an adrenaline rush.” I don’t make films where I know what the ending will be. I started talking to former dancers like Hope Clark. I knew about [Deanne’s] story, and I thought there were elements pertinent to the narrative, so I contacted her. To me, it’s the gift of the film that it allows this place where we actually ask the hardest questions. She was so willing. I think it’s important she was able to talk about feelings she had that day when it happened. She does say that five years down the line, she has a different view. I think that gives us a sense of what time means and how much gratitude and latitude we can get from time.
What is it like for you to watch that scene?
Streb: We’ve gone to a bunch of different film festivals, and every time I see it my whole body is just completely clenched. As [Deanne] said, "That was end." I really felt that feeling too: This might be the end. Is this the moment, when you stop? Whether I went too far or not, this happened in my room, and it is my fault, and whatever fault means, you have to accept that. I was pretty wounded for a long time. It was awkward—the worst kind of breakup. We had a magic exchange about movement, and she was an unbelievable dancer.
I loved learning about your childhood—how you were adopted and how your father was a bricklayer—along with the fact that you studied with Viola Farber as well as a lot of ballet. How does that relate to what you do now?
Streb: I was an artist as a young person and I went to art school, so my identity from the age of seven to when I went to college was as an artist. But my obsession was action. I did downhill skiing and rode motorcycles and played baseball and basketball. I went to SUNY Brockport; they give you a list of what you want to do for the rest of your life, and I saw the word dance and thought, Perfect! I’ll do that. My friends said, “You can’t just start dancing at 17.” It was pretty embarrassing, and if they had auditions I never would have made it into that dance program, however, I was not going to not have my body be trained, so I took classes, one modern and one ballet a day from age 17 to 45. How can you throw away the arabesque and make fun of it, as I do sometimes, if you haven’t really learned how to do it?
You stress how being careful is frowned upon at STREB. Was it hard to come to be able to come to terms with that idea?
Streb: Not that hard, but when I started dancing in college, I was so confused about why carefulness was stressed. I would go up to the teachers, who would look at me as if I were crazy, and ask, “When do we really get to start moving?” I thought it was supposed to feel like going down a hill at 90-miles per hour. You know when you would get to the across-the-floor thing in ballet? I’d be like, Oh, finally! I would use eight times the force I needed. I’d do all the moves, and everything was fine, but I’d stop a millimeter away from the person on the other side of the room to see how close I could get. [The other dancers would be, “What are you doing?” And I’d say, “I’m working with the forces.”
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity is at the Film Forum, Sept 10-16, at Film Forum, with screenings daily at 1:00, 3:15, 5:30, 7:40, and 9:40pm.