Donna Sternberg has been creating dances since 1975 and founded the Santa Monica based Donna Sternberg & Dancers, in 1985. Sternberg has written that she strives to link together dance with the sciences, the arts and our communities. It is the senior citizen community that inspired her most recent work titled Life Stories premiering on November 4 and 5 in the Garden Room at the Veterans Memorial Complex in Culver City. Life Stories examines what it is like to grow old in a culture that is geared toward the young. A photo exhibition, Aging Gracefully/ Lifecycle by Mara Zaslove will accompany the performance.
I asked Sternberg how she became interested in working with science as an inspiration for her choreography. She related how she had been reading a lot about eastern mysticism and the existence of parallel universes. A conversation with a videographer, Michael Masucci, then led her to become interested in quantum theory and string theories, which postulate that there are many levels of existence. Sternberg admitted that prior to this experience, she had not been at all interested in science. She double majored in Psychology and Dance in college, but has taken interest in botany, quantum physics, immunology and the brain, and these subjects continue to provide her with inspiration for new works.
Sternberg was quick to state that she was not interested in her work as a “Nova Science Lesson” but to figure out how to use some of the basic tenets of science to explore and translate into “an abstract medium of dance.” She usually offers post-performance discussions with the scientists involved in the project with people in the audience who are interested in science.
“I really think that science and the arts have a huge point of connection,” Sternberg said. “because scientists are also creative. They must think up these theories? They say that they come from math, but esoteric math? I don’t get it, but it is very creative!” The scientists that she has spoken with are always excited to share their knowledge. “The general public is as terrified of science as they are of contemporary dance!”
After reading an article about what it was like to grow old in Los Angeles, Sternberg decided to contact the Culver City Senior Center who then helped her set up interviews with people. “It wasn’t that easy.” Sternberg mused. “I had to set up a table and offer free cookies!” She explained that it was because the center has approximately 5000 people that pass through its doors and the building is bustling with activities for them to participate in. “I was lost among the shuffle, except for my cookies.” She added.
Once she got people at the table, she used the interviews as the basis for Life Stories. She admitted to me that she was shocked to find that not one of these people were depressed about growing older. “They were involved. They were optimistic. They were eager about learning; they were curious and active.” Finding this out naturally altered the nature and direction of Sternberg’s piece. She was aware that if she had gone to a nursing home that she would have had an entirely different audience and experience. Those at the Culver City Senior Center, however, were upbeat and eager to share.
She interviewed eight senior citizens. One woman, Dora, from Israel stated that she felt sorry for seniors in America because of the age barrier. Here, the two generations do not usually interact. Sternberg stressed that there are so many of these people’s stories that are not only poignant, but useful. Instead we shove our older people aside. The exception, of course is the older artist or scientist, but seniors are generally ignored except by their own community. Sternberg knows that what these people say is as valid as any 20 or 30-year-old and she wants to bring that knowledge to the forefront.
For Life Stories Sternberg is using clips from these interviews as part of the sound score and moments from their life stories as inspiration for her choreography. Three of the women are in this performance, ranging in age from 70s to 87. Their names are Natalie Carroll, Charlene Elgart, and Genevieve De Paw. Natalie Carroll is a balletomane who still takes several ballet classes each week. She has never danced professionally but did appear in Bill T. Jones’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin at UCLA in 1991. Charlene Elgart is the step-mother of LA’s choreographer and dance film maker, Sarah Elgart. Genevieve Da Paw, who celebrated her 87th birthday during the rehearsal period, studied some modern dance while living in New Jersey.
Also performing in this piece is former Bella Lewitzky Dance Company member, choreographer and costume designer Diana MacNeil. MacNeil, a truly beautiful dancer and performer, bridges the age gap between the older women and the younger members of Sternberg’s company.
This dance is not science based, but Sternberg has always been interested in the human experience. I once wrote that Donna Sternberg has a talent for recognizing the essence of the complexities of life, defining the core of those complexities and putting it into movement. She believes that dance is a great vehicle of expression of these experiences because audiences bring their own life knowledge to the performance, and each will take away a different interpretation of the work.
I asked Sternberg if her own age sparked interest in creating Life Stories. She said no, but that during the making of it she wondered, as a company director, what young dancers might think when they audition for her company when they see that she is not thirty. “Does that determine whether or not they want to work with me?” she said. “Do they think that I have a wealth of experience that they can learn from or do they think, ‘Oh my God! She’s old’?
Sternberg does not feel invisible or relegated to the side. The obstacles that she encountered during rehearsals were minimal. The seniors had some problems remembering the sequence of movements, and the fact that they are non-dancers was a challenge. They made up for all that, however, with their enthusiasm and desire to learn a new skill. These women did not want to be sedentary. They wanted to be up and moving.
When asked what she wanted to add, Sternberg said that she wanted people to appreciate that we have a group of people in our society whose lives are meaningful and what they have to say is as relevant as anyone’s. “Not everyone who ages sees it as a curse,” she said, “it can be an extremely rewarding period of life. You can keep learning and being curious and being involved. It (life) doesn’t have to stop. Your life is not less than when you are an older person. There’s charm, there’s humor and there’s pathos; just as much as in everyone else’s.”
Life Stories takes place in the Garden Room at the Veterans Memorial Complex located at Garden Room, Veteran’s Memorial Complex, 4117 Overland Ave, Culver City, CA. 90230, on Saturday, November 4 at 8pm, and Sunday, November 5 at 3pm. Tickets: General-$20, Seniors/Students/DRC code- $15, Culver City Senior Center Members- $10. To purchase tickets, click here. More information: www.dsdancers.com.
To view L.A. Dance Chronicle’s Calendar for Performances in the Los Angeles Area, click here.