According to Wikipedia, in 1981 the Culver City Ivy Substation was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Formerly a power station that housed equipment of a nearby electric railways and the Ivy Station, it is now a 99-seat theater. It is a beautiful, high ceiling space and Donna Sternberg made great use of not only the stage, but also the visible staircase that ran along the back brick wall.

After performing with the companies of Donald Byrd, Mary Jane Eisenberg, Yen Lu Wong and Dance/LA, Donna Sternberg founded her company in 1985. For this performance Sternberg collaborated with well-known poets Suzanne Lummis and Pireeni Sundaralingam, and Irish-born musician Colm Ó Riain who has been hailed as a “genius fiddler”. Most prominent during the evening was Suzanne Lummis reading her poetry from just offstage right. There was one soulful and sometimes atonal musical interlude by Riain performing down center. The title of the piece was not mentioned in the program, but perhaps Riain was improvising as his bio states that he is a “fiery improviser in multiple genres”. Sundaralingam’s poetry was recorded. Sternberg’s work was nicely enhanced by Shawn Fidler’s lighting design and costumes by Diana MacNeil.

After a somewhat awkward beginning where we were subjected to the dancers standing in the aisles speaking lines from Lummis’ poetry, emoting and forming inane poses to illustrate what they were saying, Sternberg got down to business with some serious, in-depth choreography. Most notably were Celtic Raag, Everywhere I Go There I Am, Some Stories About the Moon, and Love Poem With No Whimpering.

Christian Fajardo and Laura Ann Smyth performed with great strength and beauty in Celtic Raag to the recording of Sundaralingam’s poetry and the music played live by Riain. Here Sternberg stayed away from being too literal about the words being spoken, but let her creative skills stand on their own to interpret the meaning of the poem. It was a stunning duet after which I heard audible sighs from viewers around me.

In Everywhere I Go There I Am Sternberg made use of the stairs and stage with two similar but different duets by Jun Lee, Nicole Powell, Chelsea Rountree and Laura Ann Smyth. Lummis read her poem through and then re-read sections of it as the dancers, two at a time, showed us their present selves at the top of the stairs and then the people they wished that they were as they took center stage. Chelsea Rountree portrayed a middle aged woman who came west in search of stardom, but whose hopes never materialized. Nicole Powell’s character had a similar history of unfulfilled dreams.

Laura Ann Smyth - Photo: Scott Belding
Laura Ann Smyth – Photo: Scott Belding

It was, however, Jun Lee and Laura Ann Smyth who gave outstanding performances in their duet. Lee was totally convincing as an elderly woman and her transformation in and out of the memories of her youthful self were breathtaking. We witnessed Lee’s body and face transform without the aid of anything but her acting abilities. We saw Lee as an old woman who had experienced a hard life change into a youthful beauty right there before our eyes. No lighting tricks or make up; just extraordinary physical control. Smyth was also totally believable as the aging jazz dancer at an audition who is suddenly confronted with the reality of her aging body and missed opportunities.

Some Stories About the Moon, written and read by Lummis, was Zen-like in its simplicity. Jun Lee portrayed a sleeping woman dreaming of perhaps her lost lover, performed by Christian Fajardo. I enjoyed the use of a fish bowl of water that changed colors as her lover moved in and out of the woman’s dreams. It discretely illustrated her changing moods and emotions. Not much physical movement took place in this piece, but a great deal of life occurred. Beautiful.

In Love Poem With No Whimpering, I totally enjoyed the performances of Christian Fajardo, Nicole Powell, Chelsea Rountree and Laura Ann Smyth as three somewhat unsettled women.

Photo: Scott Belding
Photo: Scott Belding

Donna Sternberg has a talent for recognizing the essence of the complexities of life, defining the core of those complexities and putting it into movement. I felt that she didn’t hit her target in all of the works presented on this concert, but when she did, it was a pleasure to see.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

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