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Interview with Donna Sternberg – “Beauty”

November 5, 2012

How has Donna Sternberg and Dancers continued to grow and evolve?

The company has evolved in ways I did not foresee or envision when I began it 27 years ago, and that’s positive.   I developed a strong interest in science about 10 years ago, which surprised me!  Since that time I have been delving into how to build a bridge between science and dance, using science as a framework for my artistic explorations and to examine the human experience.   I have found that I particularly enjoy collaborating with artists of other disciplines and the company’s work has become increasingly interdisciplinary.   My way of working with my dancers has also changed and they are an active part of the creation process, contributing their ideas and movement.  I use a lot of improvisation and have the dancers do journal writing, drawing and other methods to probe the themes and help us come up with movement.  Over the years I have found the best way for me to delve into topics I am interested in is to work on one project for an entire year, producing a full evening-length work.  This allows the dancers and me the opportunity to explore a topic in depth and to use a lot of our time in pure experimentation.

Please tell us about the pieces and theme in your upcoming show, “Beauty.”    

The space we will be performing in, Brasil Brasil Cultural Center, is a studio.  My philosophy about performing spaces is that you acknowledge the type of space you are in and capitalize on its strengths and uniqueness.  Rather than try and recreate a theater, the space gives the company the opportunity to be up front and personal, letting the audience see the dancers from a perspective entirely different than the more formal proscenium stage.  I decided it would be interesting to present this show in a way that would let the audience be a part of the performance, discussing with them how the dances were created and engaging in conversation about their reactions and questions.

The topic of beauty came up when I was researching another project called The Flowering of Desire, which looks a desire from the plant’s point of view and the human desires that connect us to plants.  One of the books that I read was “The Science of Beauty” which examines beauty from a scientific point of view.  I found it fascinating and wanted to explore the theme incorporating movement and text.  So the first work on the program is called just that The Science of Beauty.  It looks at scientific evidence about what humans think is beautiful and intermixes that with the dancer’s personal stories about beauty.  I didn’t want the show to get too “heady”, so decided I needed some humor to balance it out.  I had heard an album many years ago of songs from West Side Story reinterpreted by different artists, and fell in love with Little Richard’s interpretation of “I Feel Pretty”.  Naturally I had to use that song to spoof the whole idea of prettiness, which I did in the new dance Pretty.   The last dance using the theme of beauty is entitled The Back of Beauty and was inspired by an image from the movie “Snow White and the Huntsman” of an exquisite bare back.  The beauty of that back motivated me to explore how the back alone can move and communicate.  This entire dance is performed with the dancers facing away from the audience so only their backsides are visible.

The other 2 dances that round out the program focus on the theme of desire. Parasites is a section from The Flowering of Desire that looks at how parasitical plants feed on a host plant with metaphorical references to how the same kind of behavior exists in the human world, with people feeding on the life energy of others.  It is only dance that is not a premiere in this show.  The other dance is Inhale choreographed by Anandha Ray.

Please tell us about the inclusion of Anandha Ray’s work “Inhale.” 

I have never had another choreographer work with the company over its long history.  I first saw Anandha’s work on a shared program several years ago and I was completely blown away by it.  Her choreography was inventive, surprising emotionally engaging, and her female dancers were strong, fierce and did lifts and balances that I could hardly believe.  I saw another piece of hers last year and had the same reaction.  I knew then that I wanted one of her dances in my company’s repertoire.  I thought her choreography, while very different than my one, would also be complimentary.  I wanted to be a part of her creative process and I wanted my dancers to work with her to stretch them in different ways than they get working with me.  The only parameter that I gave her was that the theme of the dance was desire, and that’s where she started.  The process was fascinating for me and intense for the dancers, who completely invested themselves in it.  The end product is a dance that burrows into the desires that reside in the deep nameless places of our beings.  I’m very excited to have the company perform it.

What do you hope to evoke in your audience at “Beauty”? 

An emotional connection response, something that touches their heart and soul.  Curiosity that motivates them to look at their own notions of beauty and desire.  Pathos, wonder, being swept away by the dancers, the movement and the themes being explored.   And the desire to see more dance.

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see for Donna Sternberg and Dancers in the future?

Collaborative projects that involve scientists and other artists that are presented in different cities and countries.  Partnerships with institutions like science centers, museums, observatories, universities and non-traditional places where we could collaborate on a host of projects, developing performances and educational programs.  I would like to the company to develop and present a festival of science-based performance works from all over the world that we could present all over the world.  All of my dancers would be paid a living wage – that would be a true magic-wand wish!

Any words of advice or inspiration for other dancers and choreographers?

Follow your heart and live your passion.


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