This was the first year that Donna Sternberg & Dancers (DS&D) virtually presented Awe and Wonder, an annual series that unites scientists with choreographers to produce new and original work. Another first, Artistic Director of DS&D, Donna Sternberg chose a central theme for evening, Climate Change. In the past, the choreographers and scientists developed their own individual focus for their work. For more than 10 years DS&D has been exploring the sundry of ways in which dance and science could connect, and Sternberg genuinely believes that scientists, like artists, are creating via their research and experiments. That fact is evident in the recent vaccine to prevent the corona virus known as COVID-19.
These scientists and choreographers were randomly paired by Sternberg and from their conversations, each choreographer created a new work inspired by those talks. This year’s choreographers were Co-founder and Artistic Director of Versa-Style Dance Company, Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad (hip hop); Artistic Director of Arpana Dance Company and School, Ramya Harishankar (Indian Bharata Natyam); professional dancer, teacher and choreographer from Brazil, Gisele Silva (Tap); and Donna Sternberg (Contemporary). The scientist who collaborated with the dance artists included Sharon Cobb (nurse scientist), Anita Sengupta (rocket science), Christine O’Connell (climate science), and Devavani Chatterjea (immunology).
Sternberg explained that although three of the scientists worked in disciplines other than climate science, via their discussions and individual research, everyone managed to create a common vision for their work that spoke to the theme of climate change.
Currently, Gisele Silva is a member of Syncopated Ladies and the New York company Music From The Sole, but she was in her native country Brazil during the time that she connected with nurse scientist Sharon Cobb. They met on Zoom, emailed and texted each other to arrive at the direction their video work, IN-VOICE, The Earth is Calling, would take. Silva performed on a small, wooden tap floor in a lush part of Brazil’s rainforest before moving into an area destroyed by fires. There has been a fire raging in Brazil’s rainforest for a couple of years now which is not only threating the lives of Brazilians, but the health of the entire planet Earth.
Silva and Cobb incorporated local newscasts, articles and photographs to show the horrible devastation caused by the fires in Brazil and the eruption of La Soufrière Volcano on the island of St. Vincent. The film includes pictures and live webinar shots of acres and acres of trees burning and the thick layers of ash that are right now covering St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of small islands that lie on a line between the larger islands of Saint Vincent and Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. The caption on one live report stated, “The day was dark in Sao Paulo, while the nights were lighted by fire in the Amazon.” Silva’s tap rhythms softened or hardened, slowed or sped up to reflect the dialogue and the extraordinary music by Greg Richardson that accompanied the film. IN-VOICE, The Earth Is Calling is not only a film that showcases Silva’s great skill as a tap dancer, but it is a warning to us all that we are running out of time to slow down and hopefully reverse the effects of climate change.
One of the collaborators for IN-VOICE, The Earth is Calling was Lucas Freitas (Biologist); Composer, Greg Richardson; Filming Kefi Produções E Thiago Zanutim; and Editing Kefi Produções E Ayesha Zangaro.
EARTH BODY was choreographed by Donna Sternberg in collaboration with the dancers and the scientist was Devavani Chatterjea. This was not the first time that Sternberg and Chatterjea have worked together for Awe and Wonder. TOUCH (2020) and ADAPTATION (2019) are two that LADC has covered. EARTH BODY looks at climate change from the beginning of life to its potential demise. From creatures living in the ocean that one day walked upon the land, to a garbage covered Earth that is literally strangling mankind.
The five dancers perform in the shallow water of the Pacific Ocean, in lush areas covered with green plants, in a burnt out area caused by one of last year’s California’s wild fires, and in an area with piles of garbage waiting to be towed to the city dump. Sternberg uses contemporary movement that reflects these various venues and one thing I noticed was that much of the movement was off-center, speaking directly to how our actions are rapidly destroying the balance of what Mother Nature needs to thrive and sustain life on Earth.
EARTH BODY was filled with powerful images, but one that stood out for me was dancer Moi Josue Michel struggling to move while tethered to a large garbage filled plastic bag that threatened to totally consume him.
The video was directed, photographed and edited by Michael J. Masucci. The cast of EARTH BODY was Ani Darcey, Stephanie Cheung, Moi Josue Michel, Laura Ann Smyth, and Alaya Turnbough. The original music score “Dogdance” was composed and performed by Ari Frankel, and the costumes were by Rosalida Medina.
Leigh “Breeze-Lee” Foaad, along with Jackie “Miss Junk” Lopez, run one of the nation’s leading Hip Hop groups Versa-Style Dance Company based in Los Angeles. Their work is dance theater, and many consider them a Los Angeles treasure. Foaad and Lopez have done more than anyone in the LA area to help promote the artform known as Hip Hop and to bring it to the main stages around the world.
Foaad spoke for a couple of hours to rocket scientist Anita Sengupta for inspiration and direction on his video WHAT HAPPENS THEN. Here too, he moves his cast of dancers through a variety of landscapes; some beautiful and lush, one a path along the top of a barren mountain top, the Pacific coastline, and a fire ravaged forest area. Foaad uses several Hip Hop styles to convey the emotions he seeks to evoke in the viewers as we stare at the results of our environmental follies.
WHAT HAPPENS THEN was created within the haunting soundscore by Foaad and another company member that occasionally whispers in our ear that the apocalypse is inevitable unless we act now. It enhances the visuals of the performers as they dance, walk, wade through water, and dig their fingers into sand, soil and rocks – all elements of Mother Earth.
The amazing cast included Harry “Full Out” Weston, Cynthia “C-Soul” Hernandez, Anthony “Berry-Groove” Berry, and Brandon “Beast Boi” Juezan. The Filming and editing were by Ernesto “Precise” Galarza.
Closing the program was a lovely work also titled AWE & WONDER choreographed by Ramya Harishankar who collaborated on the video’s direction with climate scientist, Christine O’Connell. This was the first film to be recorded inside on a wooden floor with theatrical effects. Harishankar structured the work in three sections Bhoomi Pranam, a blessing of the earth; Sama/Visama, Balance/Imbalance, and Bhoomika’s Lament, the immortal speaking to the mortal rather than the other way around.
Bhoomi Pranam and Sama/Visama featured dancers from the Arpana Dance Company performing Harishankar’s choreography that she described as a modernized form of Indian Bharatanatyam. According to Wikipedia, Bharatanatyam is “one of the oldest classical dance traditions in India.” Dressed in traditional sari style costumes, the five dancers performed the entirety of Bhoomi Pranam in a circle, a tradition enacted before each class, rehearsal, and performance. In the second section, Sama/Visama, Harishankar utilized more contemporary dance formations and organized chaos patterns. It was wonderful to see this ancient dance form fused with modern choreographic construction.
Following a visual display of photos of manmade pollution and the effects it has had on our planet, and a written and spoken poem, Ramya Harishankar performed one of the highlights of the entire evening. In Bhoomika’s Lament Harishankar remained seated on the floor in a lotus position and used only her face, arms and torso to express the immortal conversing directly with we mortals. Her face moved through love, fear, concern, anger, anguish and the question of why. The camera panned in closer and we witnessed every shift of her eyes, lips, eyebrows; any subtle tilt of her head or, when she expressed fear, a sharp but small pull back of her head. Harishankar’s gestures also reflected many of the above emotions, but none of them were large or sweeping. They were contained, held close and understated, but crystal clear in their meaning. This solo, Bhoomika’s Lament, was a tour de force in restraint and subtlety. It was utterly breathtaking, proving again that less is often more. Every actor should study this performance by Ramya Harishankar.
Choreography and Voice for Awe & Wonder were by Ramya Harishankar, and the dancers were Nikki Shah, Shefali Appali, Visalini Sundaram, Raashi Subramanya, Nitya Dholakia, and Ramya Harishankar. The videography and editing was by Gunindu Abeysekera; Music by Aashray Harishankar, Pakhwaai (Drum) performed by B.P. Haribabu, and Veena (chordophone, a stringed instrument) played by S. Kavichelvan.
Awe and Wonder was supported in part by grants from the California Arts Council, a state agency; City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
For more information about Donna Sternberg & Dancers, click HERE.
To visit the Versa-Style Dance Company website, click HERE.
To visit the Arpana Dance Company and School website, click HERE.
To read more about Gisele Silva, click HERE.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Ramya Harishankar in Awe & Wonder – Screenshot by LADC