Donna Sternberg, Founder and Artistic Director of Donna Sternberg & Dancers, worked and toured in the companies of Donald Byrd, Mary Jane Eisenberg, Yen Lu Wong and Dance/LA. She has often directed her choreographic talents to use dance as a means of collaborating with other artists, cultural, scientific, and educational institutions to discover new methods of expressing the science/human connection. Such is the case with her latest work The Vortex, which debuted at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Vortex resulted from a three year long collaborative research by Sternberg, visual artist Meredith Tromble and scientist Dawn Sumner. Sumner is a Geobiologist and co-founder of KeckCAVES, a 3-D visualization facility that “provides an intellectual and computational framework for the visual exploration, manipulation, and creation of data and models.” A spiraling vortex that contain different symbols that related to the work’s central theme was projected at different intervals. Unfortunately, the vortex was not in 3-D, but the idea came across clearly.  Meredith Tromble mixes drawing, performance, installation, writing and “engaging crossover points between art and science.” Her drawings, projected throughout the evening, were both dramatic and clearly representational of the characters.

The Vortex – Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

Tromble and Sumner interviewed and collected stories by lab technicians and scientists who had been the object of job discrimination, racism, bigotry, or sexual harassment. Their stories were read aloud by a narrator, Leigh Curran, and Sternberg’s choreography denoted the emotions and/or situations related within the narrative. The work was organized into seven sections with each section involving one or more stories from both males and females of different races; all of whom worked in the field of science.

Both the introduction of the dancers and five brief stories made up the first section entitled The Vortex. There was a very low energy and a lack of connection from both the dancers and the narrator during this section, but fortunately this lethargic feeling disappeared as the evening progressed. I was having great difficulty hearing the narrator, but either she got closer her microphone, or someone turned up her volume. I liked the costume choice for this section. Each dancer wore a simple white shirt over their pants or skirts to represent the white jackets often worn in labs.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers in The Vortex – Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

Different took on exactly that; being different. One person was not allowed inside the scientific community because he was black, and another because of being a woman. Sternberg incorporated union movement phrases to represent the “norm” or the “insiders” and a soloist as the person being excluded. That person tried joining in, only to be forcefully rejected, ignored, persecuted or glared at. These are feelings that many have experienced, continue to experience and some live through them daily.

Tephra was based on a true story about man who, with the complete support of his wife, practiced cross dressing. Performed quite sensitively by Dominique McDougal and Ani Darcey, one felt the internal conflict of this heterosexual man as he struggled with a compelling need to wear women’s clothing. Sternberg introduced the characters and demonstrated their love through both abstract and literal movement. As his wife helped her husband change into a skirt, the man’s physicality changed completely. He suddenly felt free, beautiful and whole.

Ani Darcey, Dominique McDougal – The Vortex – Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

We have all heard racist slurs, bigoted comments or stereotypical statements made by others. Ridiculous explored some of these. The narrator read a story by a woman who said that she was not allowed to work in the lab because her boss thought that women’s hair would catch on fire. Performer Rein Short dashed and flailed about convincingly as she pretended to be putting out the fire in her hair. She finally was consumed by the flames and dragged off by a co-worker.

A man and woman, performed by McDougal and Jun Lee, worked together for 30 years on a research project involving molecular fusion. When they finally made a huge discovery, it was the man who received the Noble Prize, while his long-time female partner was not even mentioned. Sternberg’s movement clearly demonstrated the close working relationship of these two with supportive lifts and movements that were in close proximity of each other. Jun Lee beautifully portrays the female scientist who is not only betrayed by the scientific community but deeply wounded by her co-worker and friend.

Rein Short, Moises Josue Michel, Jun Lee in The Vortex – Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

Sternberg used a wonderful and unique choreographic device in Harassment, aided by very strong visuals by Tromble. A male employer feels that it is his right to force his affections onto his female employee, a woman who is seeking to get work experience to better her changes at earning higher university degrees and a faculty position. Performed by Jun Lee, Moises Josue Michel and Rein Short, one began to realize that the two women were actually one. Sternberg had them move identically and very close to one another as they entered the space. When the employer begins to make advances to one, the other shows repulsion. Sternberg presented both the external and the internal persona of this woman. The external gentle pushed her employer away but was afraid to be too forceful because she feared for her job. The internal character, however, reacted according to her true feelings. The two shifted positions, the external pushing back, only to be replaced by the more timid self. Eventually, the situation became unbearable and the two personae united to scream out “STOP!”

Breakthrough involved all five performers. Each character performed to a different story of personal triumph over bigotry and racism. A black man received the position he had long worked toward. A woman stated that she did not get married as her mother wished, but that she won a Noble Prize. Another spoke to how happy she was making discoveries, and a man talked about his love for the job he had and his strong feeling of being at peace in the lab. Sternberg did not mimic the narration, but we clearly witnessed the joy and life achievements of these five scientists. Again, Jun Lee excels in this section. She not only conveyed her breakthrough with quality development in the movement, but one clearly saw her transformation through her acting.

The final section, Conclusion, spoke to the joys of working toward one’s dream in spite of the obstacles set before us by social pressures and bigotries. My favorite line of the evening was “The greatest people were never versions of someone else. They were themselves.”

Jun Lee, Dominique McDougal – The Vortex – Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

The Vortex has some technical issues to work through; energy levels at the beginning, timings of black outs, sound volumes, etc., but Sternberg, Tromble and Sumner have created a powerful and timely work that can only get better with age. Once again, the dancers were Ani Darcey, Moises Josue Michel, Jun Lee, Dominique McDougal, and Rein Short. The narrator was Leigh Curran. The lighting design was by Shawn Fidler. The costumes that aptly characterized each individual were designed by Rosalida Medina.

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

Feature Photo: Courtesy of the artist.