Facing the current realities of the Covid shutdown, On December 5, 2020 at 7:30pm  the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis will present a virtual showing of The Vortex, a work created by Donna Sternberg & Dancers in collaboration with visual artist Meredith Tromble and geobiologist Dawn Sumner. Sternberg first presented The Vortex as a work-in-progress at the Diavolo Performance Space in 2016, and then in full production at the Odyssey Theater in 2018.  Also, on December 12, 2020 Donna Sternberg & Dancers will present Borders at the Wende Museum garden in Culver City.

The Mondavi Center recently received funding from the Mellon Foundation to create a new program titled SHAPE which is an acronym for Science, Humanities and the Arts: Process and Engagement. The purpose of  this program is to integrate the arts into fields of study which usually do not have an arts component and to foster interdepartmental collaboration.

“One of my collaborators in The Vortex is geobiologist Dawn Sumner, who thought our project would be perfect for this new program.” Sternberg wrote in response to my inquiry. “Proposals for the program were submitted to the Mondavi and our project was chosen as the first pilot project.  In addition to the performance, Dawn is co-teaching a class with a professor from the drama department, using the basis of how we began The Vortex – collecting stories from scientists – for the students to create their own theatrical version using their own stories.” The class that Sternberg is referring to includes both science and drama majors and therefore mixes both fields with a focus on climate science. “Originally we were commissioned by the Mondavi to perform The Vortex live as well as give workshops for the students and the general public, but the pandemic made us change course.” Sternberg added.


Donna Sternberg & Dancers - "The Vortex" - Photo courtesy of the company.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers – “The Vortex” – Photo courtesy of the company.

Dawn Sumner is a geobiologist who studies the interactions between biological processes and their host planet(s). She explores many worlds, for example, as a team member for the Curiosity rover mission on Mars and as an expedition leader for studies of bacterial communities in Antarctic lakes. She uses 3-D visualization to merge artistic and scientific techniques to gain insights that benefit both aesthetic and technical understanding of the natural world. Sumner has a life-long interest in dance and currently plays capoeira as a means of pushing herself creatively and physically. In 2009, she merged her visualization work with dance as a contributor to the performance COLLAPSE (suddenly falling down) with Sideshow Physical Theater. She is merging her dance and visualization interests with a commitment to racial and gender equity through the Vortex collaboration and associated course. Sumner is based in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis, where she has been a professor since 1997.

Sternberg has also been collaborating with intermedia artist and writer Meredith Tromble who creates installations, drawings and performances that explore the continuity of “virtual” and “physical” worlds. “Her curiosity about imagination and knowledge has sparked several projects with scientists, including the Vortex series of interactive artworks, drawings, and performances grounded in her long-term collaboration with geobiologist Dawn Sumner.” Sternberg stated.

Meredith Tromble is an inter-media artist and writer who makes installations, drawings, and performances exploring the continuity of “virtual” and “physical” worlds. Her curiosity about imagination and knowledge has sparked several projects with scientists, including the Vortex series of interactive artworks, drawings, and performances grounded in her long-term collaboration with geobiologist Dawn Sumner. Her work has been widely presented at venues ranging from the San Francisco Art Institute to the Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., and BioBAT Art Space, Brooklyn. Her Dream Vortex was chosen as an Exemplar Project of interdisciplinary research by the Association for Arts in Research Universities and her blog Art and Shadows, on contemporary art illuminated by science, was honored with an Art Writers Grant from the Warhol Foundation. Tromble is currently artist-in-residence at the University of California, Davis (UCD) Complexity Sciences Center and visiting scholar at the UCD Feminist Research Institute.

Because these collaborators were not able to present this project as a live performance, they discovered that it created a rare opportunity to re-imagine The Vortex in a way that it might not be able to be presented in live performance.  “So instead of using the video recording we had of our live performance at the Odyssey, we decided we’d try a film version where we could include different elements that we couldn’t do otherwise,” Sternberg wrote.  “None of us had ever done a film before and we had some wild and grandiose ideas of what we’d like to do but budget, time and lack of experience quashed that pretty soon.  We were most fortunate to get Michael Masucci, who I had worked with in the past, to do the film shooting and editing, and with his guidance we came up with a game plan and proceeded to make the film.”

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.


I asked Sternberg to tell me a bit more about the live performance of Borders that takes on December 12th and her company’s connection to the Wende Museum.

Donna Sternberg – Dancer, choreographer, Artistic Director of Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Photo courtesy of the artist

“I planned to do a site-specific work in the Wende garden after I had such a wonderful experience doing a site-specific dance in the gallery last year,” Sternberg wrote.  “When discussing the new project with the museum director of programming Joes Segal, he suggested that the topic might be borders, given that the museum is dedicated to art from the Cold War as well as the relevance of the topic in our present day.  I thought the architecture of the garden and the art that is installed there would lend itself greatly to the theme, so that’s how I decided on the direction of the work.”

Only 4 dancers will perform Borders at the museum, and the company has had a chance to rehearse outside while wearing masks, either at the museum or inside a local park. Sternberg stressed that the dancers maintained the 6 feet physical distancing that is required to keep them safe. They are anticipating that the audience might possibly be small due to the pandemic but are looking forward to performing again.

“The audience will enter through the garden where temperatures will be taken and they will be directed to certain areas where each group will stand, like the circles drawn in Central Park, so that they will not be too close to each other.  Masks will of course be required,” She added that audiences are required to make reservations in advance.  The company is scheduled to have two live performances so that more people can attend.  “We will notify those people if we have to call off the performances because of tighter restrictions, in which case we’ll just have the live streamed version.”

The performer in Borders include Ani Darcey, Moises Josue Michel, Rein Short, and Laura Ann Smyth, and the music is TBA.

For more information about the December 5, 2020 performance of The Vortex at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis please contact Alaya Turnbough at 310-260-1198, contact@dsdancers.com  or visit www.dsdancers.com.

For information and tickets for Borders on December 12, 2020 at the Wende Museum garden, click HERE. Admission is free to both the streamed and live. The Wende Museum garden is located at 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230.

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

Written and compiled by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Borders – Photo courtesy of the company.