Donna Sternberg: The Dance of Desire

This is the first in a series of interviews focused on events, taking place this weekend, that are in celebration of Arts Month in Long Beach. The Arts Council for Long Beach, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, has created the A LOT initiative which has presented a series of art events in three locations throughout the city. This Sunday, October 20, the A LOT North site, located on the corner of Atlantic and Artesia, will feature the Taste of North Town, and performances by singer Reuben Cannon, musician Katina Mitchell and Donna Sternberg and Dancers.

Donna explained how her vision for Sunday’s performance, The Flowering of Desire, coalesced.

“I have been doing site-specific work for some time, and am always interested in exploring new places and challenges that this work brings. So, when I got the request for proposals, I was excited about the prospect of exploring this venue. I was particularly interested in how we could enliven a space that, for lack of a better description, is unused, rather ugly and not a significant part of the community.

“I had just finished a two year project exploring the concept of desire through plant biology – looking at how desire is manifested through the plant’s point of view, and thought I could continue with this theme for this proposal. Instead of desire, though, I thought I’d look at how urbanization has affected this site, how it has changed the natural topography and environment. From there, I though I would like to re-imagine how the space could be reclaimed by the community and become a space that is shared and used.

“My work uses science as an inspiration. I do not literally reproduce science concepts and principles, but use them as a starting point for my choreography. In this instance, I researched how urbanization has affected plants and found that there were several areas that I could interpret, abstractly, through dance. That’s the beginning of how I put together the work. The dance immerses itself in the space, traveling from the asphalt area to a hay-strewn area, so we are really using the lot instead of being on a stage that is stuck on the lot.”

Donna drew inspiration from Michael Pollan’s famous book, The Botany of Desire, which speaks about the theory that humans and plants have a complex and symbiotic relationship.

“I read the book, which is framed exactly the same way – looking at desire from the plant’s point of view. I thought it was such an amazing perspective, and rich with possibilities, so adapted it to dance. The idea of looking at desire from the plant’s point of view and how humans’ desire interacts to shape plants seemed a rich subject for me. After reading Pollan’s book, I researched other books on plants and came up with some themes I thought would be interesting to explore, such as pollination.

“Plants need to be pollinated in order to survive and propagate. You could say they desire it. Plants are designed to maximize distributing their pollen on insects, animals, birds, etc. that come in contact with them. They have various mechanisms to do so including smell, color and shape. A bee will be carried away in spasms of delight when in a flower, and will rub himself all over with the pollen, which it will then take and distribute to the next flower it goes to. Propagation is also important to humans, obviously, and their dance of sexuality has similarities to insects. So I draw a metaphor between human mating and insects pollinating plants and portray it through dance in a sensual duet between a man and woman in which they are in almost constant contact with one another.

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“In the A LOT performance, one of the ideas I explore has to do with corridors. When areas are urbanized what happens is that plants are separated into corridors that become more and more limited. As the plants are driven into smaller spaces and separated from other plants, their survival becomes more and more precarious. They don’t have the resources they previously had in terms of pollinators, food, water, etc. So in the dance, the dancers start out with a large amount of space that becomes smaller and smaller, and as the space diminishes, so do their movements until they are moving very little and very weakly.” 

Donna began to explore the creation of site-specific choreography for non- traditional dance locations as a means of expanding the opportunities for her company to perform.

“The cost of mounting productions in a traditional theater are prohibitive, and the company wasn’t performing as much as I wanted it to. Site-specific events are much less expensive. As I started to work in this genre, I found that I really liked it. It has unique challenges that cause me to choreograph in different ways. For me, the site is like another dancer. It’s as important as the dancers, so it’s essential that I look at the site and use it for the qualities that it has.

“It’s also more accessible for audiences. Many people won’t go see dance in a theater, but will go to see it when it’s outside. I love to watch people who just happen to be at the site where we’re performing who didn’t know about the performance beforehand – they just happened upon it.

“We’re often performing on less than ideal surfaces for dance – concrete, asphalt, dirt – all of which make it more difficult for the dancers to actually dance. I have to account for this and make sure I’m not doing something that will injure the dancers.

“Some of the drama that the theater provides, like lighting and projections, are not part of most site-specific work, which makes it important for me to try and find new ways to bring it back into the dance. Also the spaces are usually so vast that I have to make sure I can capture and keep an audience’s attention.

“I’m excited that we are performing with Katina Mitchell, another A LOT artist who is a musician. She will be singing live and accompanying herself on both a hurdy gurdy that is over 200 years old, and a harp for one section of our dance. We rehearsed with her last Friday on-site and it was a fantastic experience. Her voice is stunning and the combination of live music and dance is very special.

“We had passersby that looked over at us, but none that really stopped. This was our 3rd rehearsal on-site, and we have had people come and take pictures and videos of us w/ their phones, as well as stop and look. We also get a lot of shouted comments from cars that drive by, but I have no idea what they’re saying. I like open rehearsals on-site for the same reason as I do performing – someone can just walk by and come upon us and watch us. It’s a way to engage community.”

On Sunday, events start at 11:30AM and continue until 5PM. Performances by Donna Sternberg and Dancers are scheduled for noon, and 2PM.

To learn more about Donna, visit To learn more about A LOT, visit To learn more about the Arts Council for Long Beach, visit Visit facebook to learn more about the Taste of North Town.

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