Pulling Back the Curtain on “Art Speaks”: A Conversation with Choreographer Donna Sternberg

Painters use color, musicians use sound – how does a choreographer use movement to make art? Donna Sternberg sat down to discuss her new dance Art Speaks, her views on the creative process, and her life as a dancer, choreographer, and artist.

Art Speaks will be presented on November 13 and 14, from  3:00pm-3:30pm at Culver City Hall Plaza, 9770 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Art Speaks, an original, site-specific, and immersive contemporary dance work by Donna Sternberg & Dancers that highlights Culver City’s robust Art in Public Places Program. Admission is free, and there will be a Q&A with the dance company after the performance. 

Donna began studying ballet as a young girl in Los Angeles, and received her BS in Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On returning to LA, she performed with contemporary dance masters and companies. She became intrigued with the process of creating dances and, in 1985, founded Donna Sternberg & Dancers to showcase her own style of choreographic creation and inquiry. She has choreographed over 90 contemporary works, performed throughout North America and Europe, and been widely recognized with an impressive array of awards, commissions, residencies, and fellowships.

Donna says her approach to choreography has changed over the years. “I came from the tradition where you work with a choreographer and you’re the choreographer’s instrument. They tell you what to do and feel, and you don’t have a whole lot of say in it. But I don’t work that way anymore — now I work very collaboratively with the dancers. A lot of the material is actually generated from them through improvisation. I shape it and mold it, and of course I do contribute my own material.” Laughing, she continues: “I did several solo concerts on my own and got sick of myself after a while! I mean you fall into patterns, ways of moving that you’re comfortable with, and I felt like I needed to go beyond that, to just break out of my own self. Working with the dancers as active creators and collaborators has really enlarged my whole tool kit. And I think it invests the dancers more in what they’re doing because they’re an active part of its creation.”

In fact, Donna makes it a point to offer her company’s coveted year-long contracts only to dancers who are as inspired by the collaborative creative process as she is. This year she has five talented and thoughtful dancers following her creative lead: Alisa Carreras, Moi Michel, Micah Moch, Laura Ann Smyth, and Alaya Turnbough. These are dancers who, Donna says, “are interested in how they can use their bodies to express something, rather than only in how they can show off technically. They’re open and willing to go places creatively that they may not have gone before.” And it’s clear she loves being creative with this group. For the two upcoming performances of Art Speaks, they have been rehearsing three days per week since September. “My favorite part of rehearsing with this company,” she confides, “is that I never know what’s going to happen. I’ll have a general idea of the dance, but then it evolves based on the feedback from the dancers — how they’re approaching a certain movement, problem, or exercise that I’m giving them, which will spark a whole new area of, ‘okay, now maybe we’ll go here and try this.’ I’m in control but not controlling what’s happening, and that process is incredibly stimulating and fulfilling.”

It is also clear that Donna Sternberg & Dancers has been very inspired in the creation of Art Speaks. Donna realized that Culver City’s robust Public Art Program with installations all over the city was an invitation to connect. She was especially moved by the artworks at City Hall Plaza, thinking “this would be a good place to have a performance and… let the art speak to me.” The five works featured in their site-specific dance are La Ballona (May Sun, 1995), Quotation Courtyard (Barbara McCarren, 1995), Panoramic (Barbara McCarren, 1995), Hanging Garden (Ed Carpenter, 1995), and the architecture of the plaza space (Gonzalez Goodale Architects, 1995). Each work has a specific story to tell, which Donna and her dancers tapped into to channel their expressiveness.

One of her favorite moments in the dance is at the La Ballona installation, which pays homage to Ballona Creek and the indigenous Tongva peoples who lived along its banks. “The dancers are seated on a ledge,” describes Donna, “and they’re rowing. And you can hear the sound of the water because there’s a pool right there. At that moment, I can actually see the Tongva rowing in Ballona Creek to the Los Angeles River. The waterways were their main thoroughfares and they got around by boat. So, although this part of the choreography is so simple, it makes the whole sense of the people and time very real to me.”

Another section of the dance, Quotation Courtyard, harkens back to the great classical orators like Plato and Socrates. “The pedestals of the installation made me think of old Romans,” shares Donna, “so I had each dancer pick a quote from the walls of Courtyard and think about how it speaks to the roles of government, citizens, and civic life.” From Panoramic, Donna used the movie camera as motivation to research the history of Culver City, where she learned the conundrum of Culver as a ‘sundown town’ in the early 1900s: Blacks where required to be gone by sunset, but the popular Cotton Club on Washington Boulevard featured Black singers and musicians until 2am. Among the choreographic challenges was to convey what it felt like to negotiate leaving the nightclub without being harassed by policemen. From an artistic perspective, these sections of the dance fuse past and present and speak to themes that are as relevant today as they were years ago.

The dance also has its lighter notes. Inspired by the emblematic artwork that fronts City Hall, Hanging Garden, the dancers explore curiosity and creativity in the scientific process of photosynthesis. The Plaza itself, a beautiful homage to art-nouveau design and sensibilities, is a joyous space in which the dancers reflect form, flow, and movement as they welcome the audience into their creative playground. All of this is accompanied by the invigorating sounds of jazz, classical, contemporary, Indian, and African music, carefully curated from Donna’s eclectic musical tastes.

Of course, Donna had some thoughts about what she has learned since March of 2020. “Covid caused me to really reflect on the place of art in our society. Art feeds the hunger in the soul that says we’re more than just what we see on the news and the awful things that human beings can do to each other. Covid showed us that art is both life-affirming and necessary for life. So that’s one of the things I’m trying to figure out: How can I make art a more embedded part of everyday life for people? Because I think we’re in such a trying time that people need to be reminded that there’s beauty and inspiration and all these other things that art brings, that helps people rise to a much higher level. In my very small way, I hope to contribute to that.” Indeed, each in our own way, isn’t making the world a little bit better what we all strive for?

Fiona Nagle, PhD, is a retired classical ballet dancer from Los Angeles. She sits on the Advisory Panel for the Culver City Arts Foundation and is an independent consultant looking for fun and creative projects to manage, keeping an eye on the arts at www.SustainableVisionsCoaching.com

The Actors' Gang

1 Comment

  1. This sounds fantastic. But how in the world can anyone fit all this into a half-hour? Thanks for all the explanation – really makes me want to see it!

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