In a sparse airy pentagonal shaped room of Temple Akiba of Culver City on November 20, 2022, a transformational piece, MENDING, unfolded. The subject was the work of the prolific artist/choreographer, Donna Sternberg and her impressive dancers who brought it to life: Alaya Oni, Alexandria Amstutz, Hannah Joo, Kylie Francisco and Glenn Rodriguez. This emotional and insightful work pulled us out of our own memories to share a voyeurs view of the recent plague.
MENDING was inspired by Sternberg’s conversations with immunologist Devavani Chatterjea. It was clear that the effects of Covid-19 on individuals and communities were not uniform, but very individual and personal. Therein was the genus and genius of this moving representation of loss and healing.
The seeds of contemporary choreography were already in process when the poetry of Angela Richardson became an important ingredient. From the written remembrances sourced in workshops and notes, a close collaboration materialized with Sternberg and Richardson. The result was an exquisite counter point of movement and poetry constructed like a symphony. The themes and variations explored the underlying mysteries and changes of each personal story which built and echoed throughout.
Breathing or lack of it, was a constant subtext beginning with the first movement called Breath. It was performed by Alaya Oni and carried the opening statement. Then came the stirring theme and variations by Alexandra Amstutz and Hannah Joo. Their power and ethereal lyricism clearly represented the very essence of life, the Breath and Breath interrupted. Stirring contemporary classical music, carefully chosen and compiled by Sternberg, helped define the direction and movement as it unfolded with each new statement.
The lockdown explored separate spaces in the next movement called Corridors. It created patterns and contrasts that gave a glimpse into the isolation, the lifeline, and lost time experienced so profoundly. The designs exquisitely shaped by Sternberg’s masterful understanding of angles and form where eloquent. Amstutz, Oni, Joo, and Francisco melded story with physicality to unfold moments of confusion and loss while the poetry expressed the questions; Was this a sanctuary or prison? Is there a Meaning in no Activity in life? Is family life a life line or…?…As time ticked on.
Rodriguez’ stirring transformation and the company’s portrayal from normalcy to frontline heroism as others looked on, delivered a potent message. While lines formed and dissipated in the movement entitled Hunger… standing, swaying, breaking, clearly a strong representation of those living on the edge.
A particularly stunning moment was Death which so exquisitely unified the ensemble. A pas de quatre with its goodbyes to loved ones, the quiet room – quiet – room – quiet! The use of mourner’s shadowy figures as they pull together, lifting, heroic, and lowering the human forms onto the lap of a Pieta embracing the dead. Then as all is cleared away, a lovely and potent duet by Rodriquez and Oni representing the spirit’s need to leave, but a partner unable to let go, their bodies move together, doing one last dance. Saying goodbye, he holds her, then with her touch he lets go, finally releasing her, with an incessant voice saying, “No don’t go.”
In Rebuilding we look to Amstutz and Joo’s lovely duet which assists in the healing that rebuilds a new paradigm. The dancers join one-at-a-time as they unite in Community. It celebrates the coming together, healing each other with Oni beginning and Francisco ending the piece with the miracle of breathing. A final silent building of an edifice made of bodies entangled and rising like the Phoenix looks to the future for hope and MENDING leaves its mark. Since the audience was clearly affected by its power, my hope is that a broader audience will soon get to see this important work.
For more information about Donna Sternberg & Dancers, please visit their website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Donna Sternberg & Dancers in MENDING – Photo by Mara Zaslove