Donna Sternberg and her eponymous company have been busy lately hooking up high concept dance works with ambitious topics in the world of science. The program on Saturday night, presented in the attractive spaces of the new Eagle Rock dance venue, Live Arts LA, took aim at the worlds of perception and memory. The results, often colored with a heavy hand were mixed. You can admire Sternberg and her capable corps of dancers for wading into complex domains that have ranged from physics to psychology to epistemology but the DIS-ILLUSIONS II program seemed mostly an evening of choreography at times overwhelmed by big ideas rather than the other way around.

What remained interesting were Sternberg's adventurous dancers and a music score played live by composer Ken Christianson and percussionist Gregg Ginsberg. The music, a mix of electronically generated sounds and composed sections, played off the action in an improvisatory style. The musicians were situated in a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Particularly effective were the rapid fire drumming section where Christianson doubled as a percussionist, a section dedicated to a tango groove and another section where Christianson, playing violin, produced agitated music with roiling cross bowing and chordal effects.

Some of the sections seemed to draw on the dancer's personal experiences, or at least fragmentary episodes from the personal past but played without much of a sense of context. The connection to perception/memory nexus remained unclear with the evening's two themes bushing up against one another but not coalescing into than a wash. The costuming, by Kiyomi Hara, lacked subtlety that might have steered us in the direction of actual illusion had it been glossed with a lighter hand. For example, the appearance of dancer Mikel Lewis, in a tule skirt and corset, was suitably disorienting in the program's pre-show publicity but left little sense of illusion on stage. What worked better were sections of partnering between women or reverse partnering, which succeeded as a result of the choreography in spite of the restrictions of gender defining costuming.

group of dancers laughing at another dancer as she runs away
Photo: Paul Antico

Sternberg made good choreographic use of the Live Arts LA space by opening the program with dancers on the balcony section as well as clever use of doors, windows and the architectural elements of the room. Even so, elements of the staging, especially exits, entrances and scene set ups felt at times set to a default mode. The cast presented believable acting and, with Elizabeth Alexander and Madison Moross, dancing that was also compelling. Alexander was especially convincing in her role as a character looking for validation and recognition but not being able to penetrate beyond the confines of isolation. The performance also used vocalizations and text. The remaining company members were Trudy Niess-Stevens, Cassandra Richards and Trinette La Fleur. An appreciative audience was on hand for the evening.

In remarks to the audience at the conclusion of the program Sternberg enlarged on some of the underpinnings of her choreography for Dis-Illusions II. Perception, she says, is often wildly personal in content. The neurobiologist Oliver Sacks has drawn similar conclusions in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat Rack but we understand that his subjects often times are managing serious cognitive disruptions. But what of the rest of us, who are actually on the same page in our daily lives as we encounter the world. Might it not be more forceful to imagine, even in the world of perception and memory, how much more profoundly alike we are than different?

You can catch more of the ongoing story at the confluence of science and dance when Donna Sternberg & Dancers present the next performance of their year-long project, Dis-Illusions II, at the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica. The performance takes place on June 14, 2011.

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