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Donna Sternberg & Dancers explore the Science of Being Human

by Jessica Abrams
April 27, 2013
Live Arts Los Angeles
4210 Panamint St.
Los Angeles, CA 90065
323-739-0804
The cover artwork on the program of Donna Sternberg and Dancers' DESIRE… The Culmination might suggest a bucolic romp set to the music of Tchaikovsky, but the bare studio-turned-performance space in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles did little to herald nymphs frolicking in a lush forest constructed from foam core and plywood. Would it be A Midsummer Night's Dream for the techno age or a foray into science through words and movement? I wasn't sure.

Then, one by one, three dancers emerged: first the sleek Erin Bond, her lines extending into the next solar system; then the impish and virtuosic Lindsay Marquino whose mercury-quick technicality was a perfect complement to Bond's languid form; and finally the elegant and voluptuous Cassandra Richards, who moved like a warm bath. Like liquid, the dancers melded, and just as quickly sprayed apart, connecting on a molecular level even when bodies were separate. The complex phrasing and even more intricate choreography made the steps look as if they had no beginning or end – again, like liquid. Like liquid with a very high mineral content. Like liquid contained in the trunk of an oak tree.

The cover art was starting to make sense.

Donna Sternberg's mission is to connect dance with science. DESIRE…The Culmination is just that – the culmination of a two-year project using the framework of plant biology to explore the concept of desire as it exists in its most elemental state. Prior to starting her own company, Sternberg danced with Donald Byrd and Mary Jane Eisenberg, to name a few; and in her movement one sees the oozy playfulness coupled with the precise technicality of Twyla Tharp who inspired Byrd's loose-jointed yet balletic style. Sternberg's five dancers are incredible technicians – bullishly strong with sharp, clean lines; but it was their dramatic presence – all five separately and as a cohesive unit – that made them the stellar performers I saw before me. Although Sternberg considers herself a science geek, what came through that night was raw human emotion.

"Pollination", a pas de deux between Erin Bond and Evan Swenson set to music by the Lebanese Claude Chaloub, suggested deep, primal need. The dancers wormed in and out of entanglements whose intensity ranged from worship to hunger to parental love and back, a Latin American telenovela played out wordlessly and set to a haunting, Moorish beat. In "Protection", Amanda Adams, Lindsay Marquino and Cassandra Richards were a tight tribe of three, taking turns draping and shielding, knotting and unwinding, metamorphosing from tiger moms to warrior princesses to children depending on the ever-shifting dynamic.

From time to time, I would find myself searching for a some kind of linear narrative, a way of defining the pieces in my own restrictive terms; but as soon as I was able to ease my thoughts back to the sheer sensory experience of the moment, I connected with the dances on an ethereal level that, I'm guessing, was Sternberg's intention. Some pieces provided more instant human recognition: for instance, "Inhale", choreographed and scored by Anandha Ray, with its tawdry red light and four female dancers clad in black bras and panties, told a familiar story. But as the dancers walked slowly toward the audience, moaning audibly with each contraction, expelling every last hard-fought breath, a deeper story – of pain and the primal need to exorcise it – was told. Amanda Adams, a formidable dramatic presence, and Evan Swenson's brilliant dance of the modern couple – "Destruction", set to Tom Waits – also told a recognizable tale of need and abuse. Today's lexicon would refer to it as co-dependency; in universal terms, it might be called love.

The evening ended with "The Back of Beauty", a tour de force featuring all four female dancers, four chairs and colored skirts. The dancers were topless; but with their backs to us as they tangoed with their chairs, it became clear that the most intimate body part was the one undulating and writhing before us (Amanda Adams' tattoos – not to mention back – didn't hurt). To Lisbeth Scott and Greg Ellis' pulsating beat, the dancers acted as temptresses, waving this languid body part in front of us like flags and we bulls in a corrida. The piece provided the perfect climax to this electrifying evening, solidifying Donna Sternberg's talent as a maker of dances as technically stunning as they are dramatically resonant.

By the end, it hit me: letting my thoughts go and allowing the emotional power of the movement to wash over me, I experienced a similar sensation to being in a forest, listening to a roaring brook under a canopy of trees.

Maybe that nymph image wasn't so far off after all.
Cover art for 'Desire... The Culmination' featuring Cassandra Richards

Cover art for "Desire... The Culmination" featuring Cassandra Richards

Photo © & courtesy of Scott Belding


Left to right - Cassandra Richards, Erin Bond, Lindsay Marquino, Amanda Adams

Left to right - Cassandra Richards, Erin Bond, Lindsay Marquino, Amanda Adams

Photo © & courtesy of Scott Belding


Amanda Adams (back), Erin Bond (over man), Evan Swenson

Amanda Adams (back), Erin Bond (over man), Evan Swenson


Left to right - Cassandra Richards, Lindsay Marquino, Erin Bond, Amanda Adams from 'Inhale'

Left to right - Cassandra Richards, Lindsay Marquino, Erin Bond, Amanda Adams from "Inhale"

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