SANTA MONICA — Donna Sternberg has found just the thing to do with anguish.
She turns it into dance.
Friday night, the Westside dancer-choreographer will appear in the premiere of a work based on the 13 years she spent as a member of a cult. "In the beginning it was great," she recalled. "And then it got really awful."
Called "Shadow Self," the piece grew out of Sternberg's decision to split from the Glendale-based Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience.
Sternberg, 39, said she had had doubts about the New Age religion for some time but was finally able to break away only after the suicide last year of co-founder Jonathan Murro. Murro, who was apparently troubled by the defections of several longtime members, had led the group since Ann Ree Colton, his late wife and co-founder, died in 1984. Sternberg severed her ties with the foundation in January.
Back when Sternberg was a true believer, she had created dances inspired by Colton and her charismatic blend of Eastern and Western religious thought. Colton's followers believe in both the divinity of Jesus and in reincarnation. "And karma," said Sternberg. "You've got to have karma if you're a New Age organization."
Sternberg said she first gave artistic expression to her growing doubts about the religion last year in a dance called "Dark Night," which will also appear on the program.
Inspired by the poem "The Dark Night of the Soul" by Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, the dance was a way "to define my own idea of God and how I related to God and other people." As leader of the organization, Murro urged belief in "a vengeful God who would punish individuals for life after life," she said. "My idea of God was radically different from his."
Sternberg, who lives in the Fairfax District, hopes "Dark Night" will speak to everyone who has undergone a dark night of the soul. But creating it was a personal catharsis, she said. "It was very healing for me." Because her medium is dance, which is less obviously confrontational than speech, she was able to express her heretical views "without the hierarchy quite understanding what I was doing. It was a way that was safe for me to deal with what I was going through."
The new dance, "Shadow Self," deals with issues raised by her leaving the group, including having to confront the fact that she stayed too long in a relationship that she now believes was unhealthy. That phenomenon is all but universal, although most people don't join cults, she said. "We like to think of ourselves as so courageous, but most of us stay in things we shouldn't far longer than we should." The dance also deals with such spiritual questions as "How do you put out all the internal fires that rage?" and "How do you find peace?"
Sternberg lived independently when she was affiliated with the Ann Ree Colton Foundation, but she spent several nights a week and most of the weekends with the group. She also gave 20% of her income to the organization. The split was especially painful because many of her friends who remain no longer speak to her. She said she is not surprised. Humiliation or shunning of group members who deviated had become common, she said. "I did some of that myself."
She said it horrifies her to think of how her initial idealism was perverted and how controlled she once was by the organization's leaders. "After being in this cult, I can understand how people followed Hitler," she said.
One thing that happens to you when you leave a cult, Sternberg said, is that you feel really stupid about having been part of it. One of the joys of art is being able to transform those regrets and other painful emotions into an experience that speaks to other people, she said.
As a choreographer, Sternberg said she is interested in enduring human issues, not making dances that are politically correct. "I'm not cutting edge," she said, laughing. Her commitment to dances based on ideas confounds at least one of her supporters. "My mother is always saying, 'Why don't you do pretty dances?' "
The third piece on the program, called "See . . . Saw," deals with how the four woman dancers who make up Donna Sternberg & Dancers feel about their physicality. For the most part, Sternberg said, visions of cellulite dance in their heads, and they feel badly. Sternberg got the idea for the piece when she noticed dancers sneaking surreptitious looks at themselves in dance studio mirrors, glancing despairingly at stomachs, thighs and rumps that only they thought were too large or lumpy.
Despite having bodies non-dancers envy, dancers often have serious body-image problems, Sternberg said. Many become obsessed with dieting, in part, because regular weigh-ins are a traumatic part of many dance training programs. Sternberg said her image of her own dancer's body was distorted by such experiences as having a college teacher tell her she could never become a professional dancer because "I was deformed." Her tragic flaw? "My breasts were too big."
The four dancers talk about their bodies and how they have shaped their identities. The process was a difficult one for the dancers, who take off their dresses at one point and dance in their underwear. According to Sternberg, the dance is a natural in a society "where 22-year-old models are getting eye lifts."
"Instead of women getting better, I think men are getting into it too, and everybody's getting worse," she said. "Maybe it's because we're in Hollywood, where everything is so distorted, but pectoral implants? The concept is just mind-boggling."
Donna Sternberg & Dancers, a nonprofit company, will perform Friday and Saturday at the Morgan-Wixson Theater, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Performances are at 8 p.m. Admission is $10. The company is giving free tickets to two local homeless shelters. For further information, call (213) 936-0281.