In the film Born to Fly, we meet not only the one-of-a-kind “extreme action architect,” choreographer Elizabeth Streb, but also several members of her dance troupe. One has to be a tough cookie inside and out to brave Streb’s physically challenging, risky routines.
Two of those featured players took a time out from running, dancing, ducking, falling and spinning, to talk to us about life in this unusual dance company.
Samantha “Sammy” Jakus, from Philadelphia, would call her journey a true Rocky story. She has trained in dance, tumbling, circus, and by wrestling with her three brothers. Exploring the body’s physical limits through movement has led her to STREB.
Cassandre “Cassy” Joseph, born and raised in Brooklyn, began training in artistic gymnastics at the age of four. Her career as a gymnast spanned 18 years, during which she earned several state, regional, and national titles. Then, like Jakus, she found at STREB an avenue for further pursuit of extreme movement.
Sammy, you mention your “rage” instincts in the film being part of what drove you to Streb’s extreme dance company. Is this form of dance a cathartic experience for you in that way? Do you still feel the same rage as you get older?
Sammy: Yes, it actually has been intensified. The energy of each move gets stuck in my psyche. Transcending my rage is an everyday practice and my lifetime journey. Before a show I am most intense; my body’s energy feels like it’s on fire. In my practice I have recently grown to accept it and love that part of me. I’m intense, so be it. As hard as I hit is also as hard as I love.
Have you ever performed a dance/maneuver that did make you worry more than usual?
Cassy: Almost every week. I love to challenge myself. If the thought of a maneuver doesn’t instantly make me sweat, I am not really interested in it. But if I had to pick something, I would say the first action event on “One Extraordinary Day” in London. The STREB team had been working tirelessly for 2 years to put together OXD, from the managing directors, the creative team, the technical crew, the dancers. It really was an incredible amount of work and I had to start it all off by leaping from the Millennium bridge. The challenge was that we had never actually rehearsed the dance (“Waterfall”) on the bridge, so there was a lot of uncertainty going into it. It had been raining the night before and the surfaces were slippery. We didn’t know if our equipment would work the same, if we would hit the bridge on the return from the initial leap. It was pretty terrifying!
Sammy: Yeah, all of the time. That would be called “Human Fountain”! That is a piece we do where the dancers leap off of different levels of scaffolding and land face first, up to 30 feet. I have the upmost respect for this piece. I respect it like I respect the ocean, it can swallow you in a second. I feel that same respect from Elizabeth in this piece. We have an unspoken trust. This piece to me is all about surrendering. Just writing that word or saying it makes me tense up, clasp my fist, and tighten my calf. That’s why I know through this piece my soul has the most capability to transcend. I actually love the “emergency mode running” the most in Human Fountain; second would be the “hard hits to the body.” All that other “pretty stuff” doesn’t really do anything for me [laughs].
The worrying is about, “Am I able to let go long enough in the air to keep my landing safe? Is my shoulder going to tear on this landing? Is a crack in the mat going to dislocate my shoulder?” I am so scared of some of the moves that I don’t even know how I do them.
Do you ever have trouble explaining what you do or what this art form is all about to people who ask?
Sammy: Yes, I tell them “I’m living my dream!” It’s not the type of thing you can sum up in the checkout line; I was just asked in the grocery store the other day, so I told her that and it felt honest.
Cassy: Yes, and for many reasons. In the literal sense, because it’s an art form that is not conventionally understood. The references are vast: it is like acrobatics because we flip; it is like dance because of its structure and rhythm; it is like boxing because of the intense repetitive impact; it is like Hollywood stunts because of the machinery. Comprehension lies in familiarity and easily referenced spaces. STREB inherently breaks from tradition, so it’s difficult to put it into a neat little package for consumption.
It’s difficult in the psychological sense, because it conflicts with the human tenet of self preservation; we live to survive, and to survive comfortably. It becomes very difficult to explain to people why I would put myself in harm’s way voluntarily, at all, or at my age, or given the job insecurity. The idea of bodily harm or failure is always at the forefront of people’s minds, understandably so, but what lies at the core of it all is a proposed challenge and the intended triumph, the redefining of possibility, the invention of something new, in a place most people are too afraid to venture. It’s exhilarating! The potential for harm is just a consequence of this pursuit. Some people get it and some people just don’t.
Sammy rehearses a grueling dance move (footage courtesy Sammy):
Cassy, you did gymnastics for most of your childhood. As a gymnast did you find yourself wanting to do something more extreme at some point?
Cassy: As a gymnast, I never thought there was anything more extreme out there. It’s a discipline that demands an insane amount of strength, bravery, hard work, commitment, patience, and a high level of pain tolerance. Actually, facing my retirement from the sport, I vowed never again to put myself in position where I stood fearing for my life or my physical safety. I had had enough. I’m not sure what happened. I think perhaps it is the only language I’ve come to truly understand. I’ve built a sound system to help me navigate through it, methods to control the racing heartbeat and sweaty palms, mantras to overcome the thoughts of injury, of inadequacy and failure. When you have a good system in place that can tackle those road bumps, the journey opens up in ways unimaginable. I am completely in love with that experience, and STREB allows me to continue that exploration.
What are some of the things you look for in a fellow STREB dancer?
Cassy: I look for integrity. The ability to say yes when yes is within reach but also the ability to say no, or not right now, rather, when that decision might compromise the safety of the team. One of the qualities that has emerged as a requisite for longevity in this work is the fight instinct in a fight or flight scenario. Every single one of us face challenges at STREB, moments when we have to admit that we don’t quite have the ability at that exact moment. It all comes down to what the dancer does when confronted with that scenario. Currently, the people I have standing next to me are all fighters. They are always working to improve on something.
What have you not yet done (as far as an extreme dance or performance art or something else) that you’d really like to do before you hang it up?
Sammy: The best is yet to come! [laughs] This question does not exist in my world. Pop Action and Extreme Action are present tense styles of living. My ego (the thoughts in my head) spends so much time in the past and the future that actually performing extreme action is my salvation, it’s here in the now that I am my “most present purest self.”
On a normal work day I am happy just to make it to lunch! Being present is the only way to survive. We tell each other “move by move,” which I find so much peace in. It’s about not worrying about how your going to “make it through the show,” or the next 5 shows, but only about how your going to make it through the move you are on, and there’s even some future hope in that statement, so it’s even more present than that! Man, I do make some good lunches though, I’m so happy to just make it to lunch so I can eat it!
Cassy: So much! I want to add a flip on the outside of a yellow wheel we call “The Gizmo.” I want to successfully complete the “Eternal Climb” on our rotating ladder. I want to add some twists to my flips. I want to fall from a little higher. I want to get up a little faster. I want to stay in the air a little longer. I want to invent a move that ends all moves! Then, maybe, I think I could hang it all up.
Learn more about Born to Fly.