Donna Sternberg & Dancers first presented The Vortex at the Odyssey Theater in the spring of 2018. It was an evening long work created following a three year long collaborative research project with geobiologist Dawn Sumner and visual artist and writer Meredith Tromble. The work was built in seven sections with one or more stories from men and women from varying ethnic backgrounds who worked in the field of science. Made possible with the support of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, University of Ca. Davis and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, these three once again combined their talents to reimagine the work into a beautiful video under the same title, The Vortex, which premiered Saturday, December 5, 2020 on The Mondavi Center’s HOMESTAGE.

The three first met at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, a month-long retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and having become intrigued by what Sumner and Tromble were doing, Sternberg approached them about collaborating. Thus, The Vortex was created. It was at this same retreat that she first heard the music of one of the two wonderful composers for The Vortex, Riley Smith. The other is Ari Frankel who also composed and performed original music for the work.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers - Ani Darcey in "The Vortex" - Artwork by Meredith Tromble - Screenshot by LADC

Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Ani Darcey in “The Vortex” – Artwork by Meredith Tromble – Screenshot by LADC

Designed especially for an online presentation, this version of The Vortex did not include all seven sections, but with the aid of technology, Sternberg was able to integrate her dancers into the artwork more fully. Dancers were seen emerging from inside a swirling vortex made up of thin slices of Tromble’s drawings, walking entering and exiting into artwork or performing while trapped inside the tornado like vortex. Dancers who were recorded separately against a green screen joined together to perform in duets, trios and quintets; only briefly actually touching.

During a Q&A following the showing, Sternberg explained that she rehearsed with her company individually outdoors on a tennis court, all wearing masks and staying physically separated as recommended in the CDC guidelines. Before going into the film studio, everyone, including the camera crew, was tested for Covid-19. Even so, each dancer was filmed separately with the exception of one duet.

"The Vortex" - Artwork by Meredith Tromble Screenshot (367) Screenshot (378) Screenshot (401)
Donna Sternberg & Dancers - Moises Josue Michel in "The Vortex" - Artwork by Meredith Tromble - Screenshot by LADC

The Vortex takes on the inequalities and biases of genders, races and sexual orientations. We hear the actual stories of men and women in the field science who were harassed, discriminated against or over-looked because of their race, gender or sexuality. A female scientist who worked for years alongside a male colleague did not even receive mention while he was given an award for their discovery. A prominent scientist decided to change genders, only to then be ostracized by the scientific community. A Black scientist who was often mistakenly perceived to be on the janitorial staff.

The main duet in this piece was performed by Moises Josue Michel and Rein Short. It is the age old story of a woman’s boss using his authority to try and garnish sexual favors from her. In the stage version, the woman was performed by two women to show her reaction that is driven by the fear of being fired, and the reactions that she wished she were strong enough to display. It was a powerful section with ingenious choreography by Sternberg. In the film version of The Vortex, Short’s dual responses occur through the magic of technology, allowing both to appear simultaneously. Both versions are hugely successful.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers - Stephanie Cheung in "The Vortex" - Artwork by Meredith Tromble - Screenshot by LADC

Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Stephanie Cheung in “The Vortex” – Artwork by Meredith Tromble – Screenshot by LADC

Before forming her company in 1985, Sternberg performed in the companies of Donald Byrd, Mary Jane Eisenberg, Yen Lu Wong and Dance/LA, and her movement is primarily modern danced based, with a strong technicality to it. The dancers are excellent and manage not to become overpowered by the technology. Over the years, Sternberg has found her own choreographic voice and continues to be inspired by science. Special mention goes out to dance artist Stephanie Cheung. Her technique is flawless, but it is her stage/film presence that kept me riveted.

Near the end of the work, there are wonderful quotes from scientists who were interviewed and whose stories are told through dance, video and spoken word. Examples: “Research is the breath of life to me.” “I never got married, but I won the Nobel Prize.” “What is more beautiful than discovering something that was unknown before?” And my favorite: “The great people were never versions of someone else. They were themselves.”

The dancers performing in The Vortex at Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis include Stephanie Cheung, Ani Darcey, Joseph Lister, Moises Josue Michel,  and Rein Short. The original music for The Vortex is by Ari Frankel and Riley Smith. The very appropriate costumes were by Rosalida Medina; Science Advisor was Priya Shukla; Vortex Software Development was Complexity Sciences Center, UCD Chris Ellison and Jordan Van Aalsburg, and Keck Caves, UDC Oliver Kreylos.  Compositing and Additional Animation was by Robert Lowden; and Camera Operator was Charlotte Rol.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers - Rein Short in "The Vortex" - Artwork by Meredith Tromble - Screenshot by LADC

Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Rein Short in “The Vortex” – Artwork by Meredith Tromble – Screenshot by LADC

The people whose voices we heard were those of Steven Balderson, Nickole Barron, Alyssa Buchtal, Veró Diaz-Muñiz, Ann Marie Dragich, Jennifer Grace, Danielle Levin, James Meredith, Michael Navarro, Tyler Pruyn, Siwei, Riley G. Smith, and Treee. The Voice Coordinator was Jennifer Grace.

Unfortunately, The Vortex is not free for viewing at this time, but Sternberg said that there are hopes that there will be another showing in the future, and that it will be shown at universities and colleges. I highly recommend that you see The Vortex if given the opportunity.

To learn more about Donna Sternberg & Dancers, click HERE.

To visit The Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts website, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Stephanie Cheung in The Vortex – Artwork Meredith Tromble – Screenshot by LADC