On May 11, Independent Lens presents Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, a film about “extreme action architect” Elizabeth Streb, who was once called the “Evel Knievel of dance.” Her choreography, which she calls POPACTION, “intertwines the disciplines of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus, and Hollywood stunt-work,” and her dancers are often required to perform physically punishing maneuvers.

To get you in the mood as we approach the film’s PBS premiere, we’ve collected some other examples of “extreme” performance and visual art, some even more out there than Streb’s work.

We had to bypass posting some of the interesting stuff we found — it was just too intensely extreme. But still, a word of caution: a few of the items we are posting here may still be too intense for some viewers, and there may be some nudity (though nothing too explicit). Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

Let’s start with something fairly gentle. The BODHI Project is the performance company of the SEAD School in Salzburg, Austria. Their pieces are fascinating, intense, modern, provocative. Here’s a sample platter:

Marina Abramovic, the “Grandmother of Performance Art”
Performance artist Marina Abramović: ‘I was ready to die.’

In 1974, Marina Abramović did a terrifying experiment. At a gallery in her native Belgrade, Serbia, she laid out 72 items on a trestle table and invited the public to use them on her in any way they saw fit. Some of the items were benign; a feather boa, some olive oil, roses. Others were not. “I had a pistol with bullets in it, my dear. I was ready to die.” At the end of six hours, she walked away, dripping with blood and tears, but alive. “How lucky I am,” she says in her still heavy accent, and laughs.

Excerpt from documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present:

More Artists Working on the Edge

Chris Haring/LiquidLoft’s “Fremdkörper”: “The existential idea of the piece is revolving around the question how [sic] a certain creature or character alien not only to us but also to him/her/itself, can be presented in the framework of dance based performance.”

Now learn about the work of Gavin Krastin:

“There’s nothing polite or subtle about performance artist Gavin Krastin‘s work. Last year at the National Arts Festival he invited us into an icy chapel to feast off a banquet laid out on his body. He’s vacuum sealed himself in plastic, been paraded through the streets of Grahamstown strapped to a back-bending contraption hitched behind a donkey cart, he’s donned heal-less thigh-high pleather bondage boots, worn wigs, makeup, feathers, a deflated plastic dolphin skin, and most often nothing at all. Gavin’s interests lie in the permeability and politics of boundaries – of the body and how it is represented, of theatre conventions, gender, and space – within the larger South African socio-political context.”

From China comes extreme performance artist He Yunchang:

The artist is renowned for acts of physical endurance, often involving self-mutilation, including on one occasion, the surgical removal of his own rib. For this piece, He Yunchang hoists himself upside down by a crane above the Liang River, in Yunan. Prior to being suspended, he has had a local butcher cut two single centimetre incisions into his upper arms. Using the same knife with which he was cut, he cuts into the water as he hangs just above it, as blood from his arms drips into the river, mingling with the fast flowing current. This, he does for 30 minutes, leaving, by the artist’s calculation a “cut” of 4,500 metres in length in the river.

Yunchang’s “Dialogue with Water.”

(We’ve spared you the clip of Yunchang undergoing an operation without anesthetic.)

More Extreme

You want to talk about going to extremes for your art? Here’s a list of 11 of the most extreme pieces of performance art ever. Some of these are incredible, if also not for the faint of heart (you’ve been warned).

Less Extreme

Let’s wind down with a piece by legendary contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch, whose work led to a gorgeous film by Wim Wenders, Pina. This striking piece shown below, which goes from arid to very wet, is serene yet dark and dangerous.

To finish with something lighter, and in fact, delightful, sample this clip from Pilobolus Dance Theater’s SHADOWLAND, described as, “Part dance, part shadow act, part circus, and part concert, the surreal story of a young girl’s sensational world as she comes of age.” SHADOWLAND was created in collaboration with Steven Banks, the lead writer of SpongeBob SquarePants, and American musician, producer, and film composer David Poe.


More about Born to Fly on Independent Lens.