Donna Sternberg has enjoyed creating science-based work for over fifteen years and she wanted to find out how other choreographers might work within this same milieu. At the Odyssey Theater on February 16 at 8:00 P.M. and February 17 at 3:00 P.M., Sternberg will present the second season of Awe and Wonder where choreographers of very differing styles have collaborated with scientists from a wide range of studies.
Sternberg is the Artistic Director and Choreographer of Donna Sternberg & Dancers, founded in 1985. With Awe and Wonder, she set out to discover not just what kind of work would result from matching choreographers with scientists, but how the work would be affected by mixing in different types of cultures. How would the work express itself by coupling immunology, evolutionary biology, biomedical or biology with Indian Bharatanatyam, Persian, Tai Chi or flamenco and even hip-hop dance forms? She is interested in hearing different cultural voices speak inside different dance forms.
The first Awe and Wonder was extremely interesting, and the second version promises to provide as great an experience for everyone involved and the audience. The choreographers include performance artist Jay Carlon; Master Artist of Bharatanatyam dance, Malathi Iyengar; Banafsheh Sayyad who draws from her extensive background in Sufism, Persian dance, Tai Chi and flamenco; and modern dance choreographer, Donna Sternberg.
“I don’t think that there is a lot of crossover in dance.” Sternberg said during our interview at the lovely Café Cuba & Cakes in Hawthorne. “I don’t think that contemporary dance audiences often see other kinds of dance forms.” It was her curiosity about how the mixing of all these elements would appear that gave her the inspiration to create Awe and Wonder.
Sternberg was the person who matched the choreographers and scientists and she did so randomly. Carlon has been collaborating with evolutionary biologist Michael Alfaro; Sayyad with Biomedical scientist Omolola Ogunyemi; Iyengar with biologist Lorraine Turcotte; and Sternberg for the second time with immunologist Devavani Chatterjea.
When I asked Sternberg how she located the scientists, she said that it varies. One of her company’s board members is a curator at the California Science Museum and he has provided her with a list of contacts. Once selected, she introduces everyone and informs them that they have an open slate to work with. After talking about their work, each pair can formulate their own direction. Some might get together in the studio, others will work apart and join forces just prior to performance time. Last year one of the scientists became very interested in the choreographic process and went to many rehearsals. Last year, choreographer John Pennington went to his partner’s lab to see firsthand what she was working on.
Sternberg send video clips of the work she was creating to Chatterjea in Minnesota, and Chatterjea provided descriptive imagery to aid Sternberg in understanding her scientific concept. This clear, artistic image launched Sternberg into her own choreographic process. Chatterjea is also a poet and has authored a poem especially for this work.
The one absolute requirement is that it be a new work, not the remaking of an existing one. “I give them total freedom.” Sternberg said. “I am not interested in seeing it beforehand or saying no that’s not good, or not the way I wanted you to do it.”
Sternberg and Chatterjea are working on an evening long work, and because Chatterjea lives and works in Minnesota, this gives them an opportunity to work together. Due to a separate project at Charles Drew University in Los Angeles, Sternberg was introduced to Ogunyemi. Alfaro and Sternberg take Yoga class together and when she found out that he was an evolutionary biologist, she asked him if he would be interested in working with a choreographer for this concert. He said yes.
Turcotte had attended another performance of Sternberg’s company titled The Vortex which explored gender and race in the science profession and asked if Sternberg would bring the piece to USC. During those discussions, Sternberg invited Turcotte to be a part of Awe and Wonder.
Regarding the selection of choreographers, Sternberg told me that she had worked with Indian choreographers before and truly loves the art form. She knew Iyengar and when Sternberg asked her to participate in this project, Iyengar surprised her by stating that she also has an undergraduate degree in Science. Sternberg knew Sayyad but had little knowledge of what Sufi dance was like. She therefore felt that it would be wonderful to find out through this process. Carlon lives in Los Angeles and Sternberg had seen his work and found it very interesting.
One very interesting aspect of last year’s Awe and Wonder was the post-performance discussion and Q&A. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the scientists and choreographers describe what they had experienced and learned while working together. There will be a chance to experience this same type of discussion at the Odyssey Theater and I highly recommend that you stay for that part of the evening. Sternberg and I agreed that the discussion period is not only interesting, but a necessary part of the experience.
“My intent for the choreographers is to have the opportunity to step outside what is their normal way of working,” Sternberg said. “and stretch in ways that they might not think of doing themselves. This is something that I can give to them; to create something that they would not normally do, and hopefully that will enrich their whole choreographic process in the future.”
Sternberg knows that most choreographers always need outside inspiration and she hopes that this will give these artists a gentle nudge into a different direction. She said that when she founded her company, she never thought that science would be her focus. After her The Vortex piece, Sternberg had a scientist from Charles Drew University invite her to integrate movement into the university’s medical curriculum. This is something that is happening at numerous universities, like Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Not just dance, but other art forms as well. “It helps doctors think outside the box of their own field.” Sternberg said.
So, science influences art and art inspires science.
Awe and Wonder will be presented on February 16 at 8:00 P.M. and February 17 at 3:00 P.M. at The Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets in advance are $25 general, $20 students/seniors and can be purchased at http://aweandwonder.bpt.me. Tickets are $5 more at the door. For photos, interviews or more information, please contact Donna Sternberg at 310-260-1198, email@example.com or visit www.dsdancers.com.
Featured image: Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Awe and Wonder