BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity

A few weekends ago, I attended a screening of the film Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, at the Reelout Film Festival here in Kingston. The documentary, directed by Emmy-nominated director, writer and producer Catherine Gund, surrounds and provides a deeper look into the life and work of dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Streb. Much of Streb’s work focuses on the idea of extreme action mechanics, as well as the obsession of making the human body fly. In addition, the film provides insight into the process of creating movement, the lives of the STREB dancers and their relation to the LGBTQ community (BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity).

In more detail, the film jumps between the past and present, the story of Elizabeth Streb, her dancers, and finally to the London Olympics in 2012. Streb decided at the age of seventeen that she wanted to be a dancer, and began taking traditional dance lessons. From here, she moved to New York to establish her own independent company and began creating her own shows (“About The Film.”). Much of Streb’s work focuses on her belief that popular dance was too delicate and beautiful. Therefore, in her own practice, she rejected this notion and took the idea that; “anything too safe is not action” (BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity). In 2003, the STREB Extreme Action Company opened SLAM – better known as the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics. Much of the film focuses on the injuries and personal lives of the dancers, and the dedication and effort it takes to complete the movements they are required to execute (“About The Film.”).

The film reaches its climax when Elizabeth Streb and her dancers travel to London in the summer of 2012, a few weeks before the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. Their motive for the trip was to foreshadow the athleticism and extreme action of the games with various events around London, such as; bungee jumping off a bridge, walking down city hall, and finally, dancing on the spokes of the London Eye. This final scene of movement on top of the London Eye is significant due to its intersection of extreme action, dance, and the personal lives of the dancers. More specifically, this scene provides images of just how small and fragile the human body is in comparison to the mechanical world. While atop the monument, the dancers were subtly moving and creating beautiful images of the strength and agility of the human body.

In addition, this scene is significant as it relates to a few themes presented within class. To begin, this scene provides insight into the intersectionality of privilege, sexuality and race. Intersectionality can be described as the study of intersections between forms of oppression, domination or discrimination (Aulette). Privilege is defined as an advantage or right given to a particular person or group of people. Sexuality is simply defined as whom you are attracted to (Aulette). Many of the Streb dancers identify with the LGBTQ community, which defies the norms expected from society (Aulette). Moreover, many belong to communities of racial minorities and therefore have grown up in a less privileged manner. Although they have faced many adversaries, it is because of their “fierce existence and passion” that they have come to Streb to create a community of inclusion through dance (BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity). Therefore, they connect to themes presented in class and have found ways of overcoming roadblocks.

Furthermore, the film, Born to Fly relates to course concepts of gender socialization and the stereotypical view of how both males and females should act. Gender socialization is the social construction of gender roles, and tells us how we should act according to typical male/female roles (Aulette). Generally speaking, the Streb dancers are very muscular and large, which falls in suit for the men and the idea of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is a culturally exalted form of masculinity that is linked to power, authority and aggression over women (Aulette). Opposing this idea is the contradiction and idea that dance is not masculine and men should not follow through with the profession. Therefore, the male dancers challenge this gender-socialized norm by pursuing a career in dance and the performing arts. Vice versa, the female dancers in the Streb Company are very muscular, masculine and large. This too goes against the idea of femininity and emphasized femininity that is associated with the typical female dancer. Emphasized femininity refers to how society or the media sees womanhood, or expects women to act (Aulette). Moreover, Streb’s movement involves a lot of crashing and thrashing about which too goes against typical gender ideas of how women should act and move.

In my opinion, the film was both very well made, and aesthetically pleasing to watch.   As a former dancer myself, I was intrigued by the movement and creative process of Elizabeth Streb and her dancers. Moreover, I found that the film gave a perspective to dance and movement that many people do not see; as a bold, harsh, and injury filled profession. While watching the film, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, eagerly anticipating the movements of the dancers’ dangerous positions and exhilarating scenes. The experiencing of attending the film and the film festival was a very positive one for me. To conclude, I would recommend this film to anyone interested in dance, gender studies or both, as I found it touched on aspects of both disciplines.

Works Cited

“About The Film.” BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity. Aubin Pictures Inc., 2014. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith Wittner. Gendered Worlds. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity. Dir. Catherine Gund. Prod. Tanya Selvaratnam. Perf. Elizabeth Streb. Aubin Pictures Inc., 2014. Film.

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7 thoughts on “BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity

  1. aba

    Hi MJ! This seems like a very exciting movie, I’ll definitely have to see it if I ever can. Along with the film obviously being quite captivating, I think it’s really great that the Streb dancers were mostly among the LGBTQ community, because it pretty much helps shed the light on privilege when you’re understanding what privilege is from the eyes of someone who does not have it. I also think that this film is is similar to “When The Last Curtain Falls” in the sense that the dancers went against gender socialization and still expressed how great art through performance can be, regardless of appearance.

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  2. MJ Post author

    I agree, both films were very similar in that they both defied the gendered socialized norms and found a place in which they could express themselves, and their sexuality in a creative and safe manner. I also think that many of the films shed light on privilege, through privileges of gender, race and sexuality. Similarly, I think that Blackbird can relate to Born to Fly in the sense that the main character Randy, is less privileged due to his race and sexuality.

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  3. Jac

    Hi Mj, this is an excellent piece. 🙂

    I don’t know much about dance, but I have to agree how it’s socialized by society as something dainty, delicate (especially things like ballet), and for women. I think it’s important to consider how challenging the social construction of gender through enforcing the gender binary. By what I mean by this is that by challenging the ideas of what is feminine and masculine is done mostly through reinforcing that you are either big and strong or small, and delicate. I think another way to challenge these gender constructions would be to touch on refusing to identify as either masculine or feminine (rejecting being both big and strong, and small and delicate). This is done by a lot of non-binary people through things like androgynous styles, and I would be interested to see how this could be explored in dance as well.

    This also relates to one of the films I saw, Bendik and the Monster, where in which socialized gender norms are challenged, although the way it is done is very different.

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  4. mac2121

    Hey MJ, I too am a former dancer which definitely has me wanting to watch the film after reading this review. I strongly agree that dance in specific is socialized by society, as something very delicate and nothing like what may be shown throughout the film Born to Fly. I appreciated your analysis between the gender socialization between the men and women and believe it is important to consider these factors in all media. I also believe that taking into account that most of the dancers were apart of the LGBTQ community is beneficial for the audience as it introduces progression. I enjoyed your explanation of how sexuality, privilege, and Intersectionality were present and how they all correlated with each other. Thanks for the great review MJ! 🙂

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  5. rau

    Hi MJ. “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” seems like a very intriguing film (even to a non-dancer)!! I think women are often seen as delicate individuals who desire to be petite and collected. By the sounds of it, the women in “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” seem like they value their strength and ability more than their beauty and self-representation. I think this trait in women is so important because in today’s society, with the internalization of the thin body ideal portrayed in the media, women are becoming obsessed with how others perceive them and are starting to value their beauty over their strength, individuality, and morals. The same thing goes for men who are portrayed as unrealistically muscular and structured in the media. When people have something that shows them the value of self expression, such as dance, I believe it allows them to block out the unrealistic body images that the media portrays.

    You mentioned that many of the dancers belong to the LGBTQ community, which if fantastic. Society has come a long way since the shunning of people who identify as anything other than heterosexual. One stereotype, however, is that male dancers are gay. This stereotype is placed upon male dancer because dance is seen as a predominantly female activity. Are the men in “Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity” represented with this stereotype? Or does the film portray an overall wide variety and acceptance of all individuals?

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    1. MJ Post author

      Rau – I noticed that it was mainly female dancers that were focused on throughout the film, and therefore the viewer knew more about their personal life. However, some of the male dancers did fit in with the homosexual stereotype but others did not. I think that in general, the film portrayed an overall wide variety of and acceptance of all individuals but the focus was clearly in the LGBTQ community and the dancers who specifically belonged to and identified as such.

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  6. Ash

    Your review of Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity was very well done, MJ! This movie definitely seems like a must-see! I agree with what you said – because of the social constructions and binaries society has established, one where men need to be masculine and women feminine, queer dancers face much adversity. Because of people like Streb, who believe in inclusivity, more people who belong to the LGBTQ community or are of colour or both can feel comfortable expressing themselves in a variety of mediums, including dance. Due to the physical intensity of dance, however, I don’t think that the muscular bodies of the dancers promote hegemonic masculinity. Also, whenever I watch dance, I never appreciate the hard work and injury that goes into the performance. As you said, this film breaks a lot of barriers and I’m really glad you enjoyed it!

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