Donna Sternberg has danced to science, and now she’s experimenting with the written word

By Christina Campodonico

Dancer Laura Ann  Smyth interprets  the poems of Suzanne Lummis in “What’s Next?” in Culver City Photo by Scott Belding

Dancer Laura Ann
Smyth interprets
the poems of Suzanne Lummis in “What’s Next?” in Culver City
Photo by Scott Belding

Most choreographers create dances to music, but for her latest project Santa Monica choreographer Donna Sternberg is venturing into uncharted waters — poetry.

Combining forces with noted L.A. poet Suzanne Lummis and violinist Colm Ó Riain, Sternberg’s dance company will present a unique mash-up of poetry, spoken word and live music at the Ivy Substation in Culver City this weekend.

Sternberg says she was immediately inspired to set movement to spoken word when she heard Sri Lankan poet Pireeni Sundaralingam read some of her works at an artists’ residency in Northern California.

“They just grabbed me,” Sternberg says.

She met with Sundaralingam and her partner, Ó Riain, for some improv jams during the retreat and they decided to develop their collaboration into an evening-length show. Sternberg then worked with her company on creating movement for the verses by having her dancers read the poems and generate movement phrases.

The resulting work — titled “What’s Next?” after a line in one of Lummis’ poems — not only asks what the future holds, but also explores how dance, music and poetry can interact. These mediums don’t always go together, but Sternberg doesn’t mind the uncertain possibilities of mixing these artistic forms, or the begging question: How do you choreograph to a poem?

The novel and unknown is familiar territory for Sternberg. She often turns to scientific source materials outside of dance, such as string theory, plant biology and quantum physics, for inspiration.

“I look at each of my projects as experiments. Some experiments work and some don’t,” she says. “But I’m not as concerned as to whether it works or not as about the journey I’m going through while I’m trying to get somewhere.”

“What’s Next?” almost didn’t take off when Sundaralingam couldn’t make the intended performance dates, but the work came together after she recommended Lummis to step in for her.

A new creative collaboration took shape as Sternberg started working with poems from Lummis’ prize-winning book “Open 24 Hours.” Lummis would sit in on rehearsals and offer minor movement suggestions, and Sternberg responded by allowing the mood and rhythm of Lummis’ poems to guide her and her company.

“We took the feeling of the poem [“Love Poem with No Whimpering”] that is just like you’re discomforted, you’re thrown off balance, you’re galloping around and you don’t know which way is up.  And with the music, we just made a dance that feels like when you’re in a rodeo and they first let the bronco out,” Sternberg says. “It just slams right out of the gate and just keeps on slamming ‘til the end of the poem. It’s just like BAM!”

Like Sternberg, Lummis is bold about taking artistic risks. Known for pushing boundaries in L.A.’s noir and stand-up poetry scenes, Lummis says she admires Sternberg for embracing the unknown in her work and taking the suggestions of a novice choreographer’s assistant like herself.

“The wonderful thing is [Sternberg’s] openness and her own adventurous spirit. Her willingness to try things. Her willingness to take risks, to be humorous, to be fun, to be a little risky,” Lummis says.

For “What’s Next?” Lummis will recite poems from her own irreverent collection of “Broken Rules” poems, a series she created by asking poetry professors to offer her a rule and then responding with a poem that intentionally breaks it. Lummis also hints that she might throw in a few moves for herself on one of her poems or even give the dancers some lines.

“I’m going to stir the air with my hands and arms and experience this music and turn this poem into somewhat of a song-like or dance-like piece. I cannot just stand there like a stick, and I also want to give the dancers some words. We’ll all share each other’s art,” she says.

Lummis looks forward to the opportunity for cross-genre exploration.

“What performance art does, I think, is moderate between dance, theatre, spoken word, poetry, music. It kind of crisscrosses back and forth, and usually with a somewhat experimental or adventurous attitude. A little bit scary in a way. A little bit dangerous, not in the sense that you’ll break your leg or anything, but dangerous in the sense that you might come up with something that seems cool and then it might not be, which for an artist can be very dangerous,” she says.

Sternberg is ready to take the figurative leap.

“I like the feeling, while it’s a scary place, of being on the edge of a cliff, looking down and wondering if I jump off, am I going to sink like a stone? Am I going to fall, or am I going to fly?”

“What’s Next?” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 13 and 14), at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. $10 to $30. (310) 260-1198;