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Sternberg Doesn't Rise With Music

October 17, 1994|LEWIS SEGAL

Donna Sternberg chooses wonderful music for dancing--rich, engulfing accompaniments borrowed from many cultures that immediately establish an intense theatrical expectancy in the listener.

But whether set to a soulful symphony by Gorecki, assaultive rock by Ministry or galvanic drums from Burundi, her choreography at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica seemed curiously locked down on Friday: compulsively busy, unrelievedly tense, obsessed with formal patterning.

Instead of deepening, extending or just plain riding the music, Sternberg would meticulously dissect it for brief, brittle movement phrases that her four-woman company could punch and pound and recombine until any hope of flow was gone. This locally based artist formed her modern dance company nine years ago, but her program included "In between" from 1977, a duet just as intelligent and overloaded in its way as her newest full-company vehicle, "Tight."

In the former, she explored conflicting impulses in a relationship--the need for closeness versus the fear of being stifled. "Tight" inflated this premise into a study of societal overcrowding and rage. Both used realistic mime to define their themes, as did "Empty/Try Another," Sternberg's manic solo about addiction from 1986.

In her three longest works, however, Sternberg distilled her concepts indirectly through structural gambits and a painterly sense of space. "Earthprints" (1990), for instance, developed percussive playoffs between Julia Felker and Susan Kawashima through alternating and then converging passages in which mirror-synchrony and cyclical buildups gave a coherent shape to relentless tests of technique and stamina.

The trio "River of Life/River of Death" (1994) incorporated clusters of women, water imagery and the division of the stage into overlapping layers in a complex showpiece that touched on supportive women's relationships and a suggestion of their parallel lives. With Gorecki's third symphony on the soundtrack, it provided the only relief on the program from high-pressure choreographic manipulation.

The four-part, full-company "Pieces of Women" (1993) experimented with sensuous music by Zakir Hussain and a vocabulary based on undulation--but ended looking just as driven and severe as the bulk of the repertory. Ultimately, it focused on physical contrasts: the quick, dry motion of three small, relatively skinny dancers framing the expansive solos of Susan Skrzycki, a tall, fleshy woman highly commanding in adagio choreography.

Sternberg's eye and mind proved as sharp as ever, and, as a dancer, she could execute mesmerizing spinal ripples on the beat with perfect accuracy. But, as the music kept reminding you, another whole dimension in dance remained out of her reach.

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