What does it say about the state of Hollywood action filmmaking that this year's most dashing derring-do comes in a doc about a choreographer? For some 40 years, Elizabeth Streb has sent herself and her performers soaring over stages worldwide, in trusses or upon reeling apparatuses or just winging out to glide and crash. In clutch-your-heart performance she has demonstrated not that the air is a domain our bodies might master, but that it is urgent and necessary that we sometimes try to — as vital as knowing how to angle yourself when the sky chucks you back.
There's much in Born to Fly to thrill to, dream with, flinch from: dancers leaping from a great whirling wheel and smacking onto mats far below; dancers ducking and leaping a wickedly spinning I-beam or cinderblock. Those last performances suggest both high-minded performance art and the trials of old-school videogame characters.
How did Streb grow from promising downtown choreographer to MacArthur Fellow to deviser of whip-fast torments even Super Mario might blanch at? Catherine Gund's doc thumbnails the history but avoids much detail, and the questions that richen Streb's work languish unplumbed: Is this dance? Is this circus? Is this -- witness Streb's squad caroming into a sheet of thick plastic -- cruel?
Missed opportunities aside, Born to Fly is more than welcome. There's no discounting the pleasure of catching Streb on the big screen. The finale involves performances in London on the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Streb herself, now in her sixties, dons a truss to walk down the glass face of London's City Hall. New York's action hero has bested Bond in his own town.