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An interview with Donna Sternberg

April 26, 2011

Donna Sternberg and Dancers is a contemporary dance company based in Los Angeles. Their upcoming performance of “Dis-Illusions II” takes place on May 7, 2011 at the Live Arts LA Space in Los Angeles. Tickets for their upcoming show can be purchased online at:

I had the opportunity to question the artistic director, Donna Sternberg, about the company and its upcoming performance.
1. When and why was the company started?
I began the company in 1985.  I had danced in several other dance companies prior to starting my own, and felt an increasing interest in exploring my own choreographic voice.  I had choreographed and performed several solo concerts and felt the need to expand beyond just working with my own body.  I wanted to work with other dancers, with different body and movement types and to manipulate space, time and relationships.

2. What’s the underlying philosophy and purpose of Donna Sternberg and Dancers?
Movement can communicate in ways that bypass rational left brain thinking and enter into the emotional and kinesthetic realms of the persona.  As such, it is a unique and powerful medium that connects people because we all move and on some level respond to movement.  Beyond this basic philosophy, the company’s purpose at present is to explore the intersection of art and science and interprete scientific principles through dance in collaboration with other art forms.  I believe there is a synergy between science and dance, and that dance, as all other art forms, has a language and vocabulary which is ideally suited to communicating abstract ideas in expressive and emotional terms, leading to a visceral understanding of perplexing concepts.  This is done in artistic ways often easier to assimilate than in ideas presented through the rigor of scientific method. There has never been a time when art and science did not directly influence each other, or express common ideas through the differences of their perspective approaches. Science is making such fascinating discoveries in areas that profoundly affect our lives and I am interested in finding innovative ways to bring these breakthroughs to audiences through dance.

3. Has this changed since the company was first founded?
While the emphasis on science has definitely evolved since the founding of the company, my essential belief that movement is a common thread that communicates to all people has not changed. However I do recognize that most people in this country are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with contemporary dance, as they also are with science, and that to me speaks of our disconnection with our bodies in general. So part of my mission and that of the company is to educate people about dance.

4. What is your favorite piece of choreography to date?
I have several favorite pieces, it’s hard not to after choreographing over 60 dances.  “Portraits by Egon Schiele”, based on the paintings of the German neo-Expressionist painter is one of my favorites because I think it captures the emotional intensity and off nature of Schiele.  “Lying on Iguanas”, a duet again based on a painting, by artist Kathi Packer, and dealing with our fascination with and sometimes unwitting destruction of nature, is another favorite.  And I have to say this upcoming work “Dis-Illusions” grabs me emotionally and takes me on a roller coaster ride, careening wildly from situation to situation.

5.  Briefly tell us about the pieces in your upcoming show.
Dis-Illusions II is a full evening-length work so it doesn’t have different dances per se in it, but is composed of loose sections that flow from one to the next.  The show explores perception and memory, and is based on scientific evidence that what and how we construct our sense of reality may differ radically from one another. I originally was inspired by these topics when I was researching another piece and read that perhaps as much as 50% of what we “see” is in actuality not visual information that is conveyed to the brain through the optic nerve but based on our expectations. This really through me for a loop, and led me to ask how then do we come to any consensus about what is “real”, when everyone has their own set of expectations that are colored by memories, needs and desires.  The piece has theatrical elements in it as well as dance with dancers speaking and singing in addition to dancing.  We used memories and incidences from the dancer’s past to come up with some of the material for the dance so there are stories from childhood as well as situations that we all can relate to: loneliness, feeling invisible, being laughed at. This is also a collaboration with composer Ken Christianson, who will be playing live with another musician during the piece.  We worked on the same principle with the sound – that what we perceive through our auditory senses is affected by more than the sound itself, and that people hear different things when listening to the same sounds.

6. What do you hope to evoke in your audience at “Dis-Illusions II”?
That all is not what it appears to be and what may seem to be one thing can in fact be something else.  That each person has his own way of looking at things, there is no one way to perceive a situation.  I also hope to evoke emotional responses and memories that touch audience members and cause them to reflect about their own lives.  I hope they will laugh, cry and have a good time.

7. If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see for Donna Sternberg and Dancers in the future?
I would like the company to be a catalyst to bring together scientists, artists and philosophers in a loosely formed art/science institute that would generate projects that are conducted and seen world-wide. Connecting with organizations and institutions such as science centers, museums and universities, the company would be involved not only in performances but in panel discussions, educational forums and other outlets that would move beyond traditional dance audiences.  I would like the company to be able to research scientific topics in relevant areas around the world, such as investigating botany in the Amazon, with scientists and use the information gathered to develop movement and create new dances.  And of course I would like the funding to do all of this!

8. Any words of advice or inspiration for other dancers?
Trust in your heart and where it leads you.  Don’t abandon your dreams of dancing if you truly feel it is in your soul to do it. Don’t let anyone convince you that dance is not a worthy endeavor or that it can only be a hobby.  Don’t worry about the financial aspect, things have a way of working themselves out.  See dance, lots of it, as well as visual art, music, film, literature.  Let life inform your art and let your art be a vital part of your life.  Find your own path in dance and trust in your instincts.  Praise and notoriety are not as important as your own artistic journey and growth, and don’t let them be the measure of your worth as an artist.

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