Donna Sternberg & Dancers presented Awe and Wonder at the Rosenthal Theater located on the campus of the award winning Inner-City Arts. It is a school where students of all ages can come to interact with artists from varying disciplines. Sternberg organized this collaboration between choreographers and scientists which produced intriguing if somewhat uneven results. The choreographers represented three different dance genres: modern dance, Sternberg and John Pennington; Folklorico, Gema Sandoval; and commercial dance, Ricky Palomino. Each artist met with a scientist to learn about her/his given field of study. From there, they used this specialized scientific information as inspiration for a new work.

Michael Szanyi, Pennington Dance Group – Photo by Denise Leitner

John Pennington met with University of Southern California Associate Professor Michelle Povinelli, who is part of the USC Department of Electrical Engineering. Her field of research is Nanophotonics, “the study of the behavior of light on the nanometer scale, and the interaction of nanometer-scale objects with light.” The music by Tom Peters was a collage of sounds and text that evoked different eras of our history and ventures into space. A tall nuclear cooling tower-shaped object moved across the stage with light emanating from the bottom and top. Part of the top then opens wider to emit a blueish white light. As the tower exits, five dancers enter carrying metal chairs and the dance titled Nanomotion begins. Pennington has created a movement based dance to represent how light moves the nanometer-scale particles (some metal, others plastic) about. At times, the dancers react like flocks of birds flying in unison; shifting suddenly together without any outside knowledge of why. Then the group breaks off into different directions, with independent responses. The dance is strong but tends to become repetitive. The cast included Heidi Brewer, Becky Chang, Danae Mcwatt, Edwin Siguenza and Tom Tsai. The costumes were by Sherry Linnel and John Pennington.

Gema Sandoval’s “Essence of Me” – Photo by Christie Rios

Gema Sandoval and Christie Rios met with Paul Nerenberg who is on the faculty of Cal State LA as an assistant professor of physics and biology. He uses “physics-based simulation methods to investigate problems in both planetary science and biophysics.” Sandoval and Rios created a colorful work titled Essence of Me to point out how, despite the differences in our racial and cultural make heritage, we each have the same human strands of DNA. To demonstrate this, Sandoval and Rios used a very simple Folklorico movement phrase that evolved into each dancer producing different, but similar sounding rhythms. The dance’s concept is complex, but the choreographers chose the direct approach to clearly state it. Long scarfs of different colors represented the strands of DNA with each dancer representing a different race or culture. At the end, the strands are draped across a single dancer’s outstretched arms to show how we are all made up of the same human DNA. This was not one of Sandoval’s strongest works, but it was nice to see her branching into new areas. The music for Essence of Me was Cesar Castro, with costumes by Frank Sandoval. The cast included Mary Maldonado, Leovi Nuñez, Mimi Rios, Roger Aguirre, Marco Ines and Jesus Norianueva.

Donna Sternberg & Dancers – Photo by Scott Belding

Donna Sternberg presented two works, both inspired by immunologist Devavani Chatterjea, currently an Associate Professor of Biology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. She studies “allergies and chronic pain and how the cells and molecules of the immune system might interweave these conditions particularly in women’s bodies.” In Sternberg’s Adaption one clearly sees how one virus or germ can affect or influence the rest of the body. Dancers are spaced equally across the stage until one “molecule” is disturbed and interacts with or alters the response of another until the entire system is in motion. Laura Ann Smyth and Christian Fajardo stand out in this very sophisticated work. It is some of the best choreography that I have seen by Sternberg and it is a dance that should remain in her repertoire. The other cast members included Camille Kappelman, Jun Lee, Alvaro Nunez and Yu Sugisaka, all very strong performers. The music was by Hilary Hahn and Hauschka. Costumes by Diana MacNeil.

Not as strong a work is Sternberg’s Invasion. The work demonstrates how a virus or germ invades the human body and our protective anti-bodies go to work to kill or dispel that foreign entity. Yu Sugisaka is beautiful in her opening solo and maintains her character throughout the dance. The work’s composition is not as rich with movement or as complex as Sternberg’s Adaption, leaving the meaning too obvious. Her point is made early on and then the work continues until one longs for the germ to be eradicated. The music was by David Little with musician Maya Beiser, costumes by Diana McNeil and the other Sternberg company members included Christian Fajardo, Camille Kappelman, Jun Lee, Alvaro Nunez and Laura Ann Smyth.

Ricky Palomino – Photo by Rob Daly

Choreographer Ricky Palomino worked with Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College, Louisa Bradtmiller. Bradtmiller’s field of study is the ocean’s role in climate change over glacial-interglacial timescales; which translates to millions of years. He choreographed Prima Glacialis to the music of NASA’s Sound of the Planets, a rich, electronic sounding score that produces the sounds emanating from different planets, such as those made within the rings of Saturn. Palomino’s movements are a mixture of modern and more commercial dance styles, but with his own unique touch. There is a strong, slow solo by Thomas O’Neil to introduce the almost invisible formation of glaciers and one performed beautifully by Katherine Cheng that evokes the movement of an unnamed creature or currant sidling along the ocean floor. Matt Cady stands out in a later solo. His personal style is different from the other dancers. Cady is tall and solid like an oak tree, but moves with a liquidly and ease that is, at times, mesmerizing. Palomino’s Prima Glacialis is too long and there are two separate themes running throughout it. With editing, however, there is enough in this dance to save it. The dancers were members of the American Contemporary Ballet Theater. The ones not mentioned above were Jessica Franco, Melissa Farrar, Rukiya McCormick, Madison Nance, Lucas Parada, Riley Kurilko, Raymond Eljifor, and William Clayton. The costumes were by Richard Palomino.

The Rosenthal Theater is a black box style venue with a seating capacity of 130. The floor is very hard for dance, but the space is great. It was nicely enhanced by the work of Lighting Designer Shawn Fidler, who created different milieus for each dance to reflect the science that influenced its creator.

(Left to Right) Donna Sternberg, Devavani Chatterjea, Ricky Palomino, Louisa Bradtmiller, Paul Nerenberg, Gema Sandoval, John Pennington, Christi Rios – Photo by Roger Martin Holman


There was an illuminating post-performance talk with the choreographers and scientists which explained how the fields of scientific studies inspired the choreography. It was clear from the conversation that artists and the researchers have a lot in common when it relates to creativity.


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