“Right as I was about to jump off the Millennium Bridge,” says a young blond woman with beefy arms, “Elizabeth Streb looked in my eyes and she said, ‘Wreak havoc!’ ”
The moment was not a suicide attempt, but the prelude to a work of art. Streb is a choreographer, and, as strange as it might sound, the fact that she was urging one of her dancers to leap off the bridge that spans London’s Thames River is fully in keeping with her performance style. She routinely gets her dancer-athletes to crash through glass and slam themselves into walls.
Streb’s relentless quest to entwine danger and beauty is the subject of “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity,” which will air Monday on WETA as part of PBS’s Independent Lens documentary series. If you’ve wondered what fearlessness looks and sounds like, and how it talks, you’ll find answers here.
“Born to Fly” is followed a few days later by another dance documentary: “American Ballet Theatre: A History,” which will air Friday on WETA as part of the “American Masters” series. (It will air again on May 24 on MPT2.) But beyond their focus on physical performance, the two films have little in common. The invigorating “Born to Fly,” about a niche experimentalist, offers insight on creativity and how extreme risk can become art. “American Ballet Theatre,” a visually handsome if restless look at the company and its place in ballet history, tries to be profound but instead is maddeningly over-arty.
It’s an interesting dichotomy. You might expect Streb to be the more remote subject, with her nerdy, note-taking intensity, her punk-rock hair and her love of funereal menswear. But this recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” is as straightforward and appealing a postmodern artist as you could hope to find. Producer/director Catherine Gund exploits those qualities in “Born to Fly,” telling Streb’s story in an uncomplicated way through interviews with the choreographer and her dancers, clips of rehearsals at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn (SLAM, for short), and views of Streb at home and in her doctor’s office. Her art is not without its costs.
Through her conventional treatment, Gund achieves something extraordinary. She takes us inside Streb’s crazy, brilliant mind to see how she thinks and why she makes her alarming choices, to understand why she pushes the fragile human bodies in her employ so far beyond what any normal person would do (and why her dancers obey without quarrel).
The seemingly unbearable violence that results may look bewildering at first, as it did to me the first time I saw Streb’s work in performance. Streb inverts aesthetic conventions — that exertion should be masked, that only the feet should hit the floor, that the men should lift the women, that age matters. Streb, who is in her 60s, also performed at that London event in 2012 where her dancers jumped off the Millennium Bridge, in a lead-up to the Olympics. Dangling forward from a cable, the dancers’ boss walked down the exterior of a glass building like something out of a spider’s fever dream.
“I didn’t even know my own name,” Streb recalls of her in-the-moment absorption during that feat. “I was just taking the next step and the next step . . . in utter ecstasy.”
Ultimately, what this film shows us is that Streb’s world is one of unimaginable freedom, where people can fly, ripple like rubber, and avoid a crash with split-second timing and impeccable control. They can dive off bridges and live to celebrate it.
You dive along with them in Gund’s film, and in the end you may find that not only are you a Streb fan, but that your way of looking at art, the world and yourself may be changed.
“If things aren’t on some level really dangerous,” Streb says, “I don’t believe you’ll discover anything that you don’t already know.”
The ABT documentary, by contrast, doesn’t offer much in the way of revelation. It makes the mistake of telling us various “amazing” things about ballet (as in one talking head after another pronouncing “the amazing thing about ballet is . . . ”) without showing them. If you’re expecting actual ballet dancing, you’ll be frustrated, unless you’re a fan of super-slow-motion photography. “But it was shot with a 30-person crew using Phantom Flex cameras, which capture up to 2,500 frames per second!” protests this film. “I’m not impressed,” I say, “because it is so freaking slow.”
That is by no means the only strange element in this film by Ric Burns, younger brother of Ken. It marks ABT’s 75th anniversary, an occasion that prompted a piling-on of ambitions: to celebrate the company, to unspool the entire history of ballet, to awkwardly return to celebrating the company and to continue flitting back and forth from one theme to the other until you’re dizzy. Jennifer Homans, author of “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet,” is a good choice as anchor of the history segments. But she deserves a documentary of her own; shoehorning her scholarship into this film doesn’t do it justice. The comments from other dance luminaries are sometimes entertaining. Here’s the wonderful late critic Clive Barnes on ABT founder Lucia Chase: “She loved dance. She had very little taste. But that really didn’t matter.”
Yet there are awkward choices here. The dancers are frequently interviewed just after they’ve come offstage, when they’re heaving and breathless. In the slow-motion shots, we can examine the very dust that flakes off their shoes, as if in some pseudo-scientific study of force and weight. But you wish this film would stop being so caught up with its shiny new technology, that it would just settle down and dance.
“Ballet is a beautiful system,” choreographer Alexei Ratmansky says at one point. “It doesn’t need translation to say things that people in every corner of the world will understand.” He’s right, and Burns should have trusted him.
“Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” airs at 11 p.m. on May 11 on WETA.
“American Ballet Theatre: A History” airs at 9:30 p.m. on May 15 on WETA and at 4:30 p.m. on May 24 on MPT2.