Los Angeles

Jmy James Kidd and the Sunland Dancers on Flat Top Hill

In Partnership with Machine Project
As part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., Machine Project asked artists to take on the whole environment of Los Angeles and create performances shot on video and edited into short experimental films in response to notable architectural sites throughout the city.

By Bennett Williamson

Flat Top, as the neighbors call it, is an undeveloped series of hilltop ridges in Montecito Heights that lead from the top of Montecito Road to the avenues of Lincoln Heights. Avenue 33 dead ends into the base of the steep hill, and informal trails and four-wheeler tracks lead up to the top. Covered in wild melon vines and grasses, the packed dirt roads that line the tops of the hills are a popular place for residents to walk their dogs, take a hike, or drink a beer and watch the sunset.

For the past 80 years, Flat Top has been owned by the Foursquare Church. Hoping to continue spreading the popular radio gospel of their founder Aimee Semple McPhearson, the church purchased the site to house a radio antenna and small station, which are still in operation today. The rest of the site remains undeveloped, a rare informal park on hilltop in a city where vistas are valuable.

For many visitors and transplants to Los Angeles, their first iconic L.A. view is from Griffith Observatory, with the grid of city lights spaced neatly below them, the flat city spread below like a two-point perspective drawing, with vanishing points in Long Beach and Venice.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill


Flat Top shows the true contours of the East Side. The confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the L.A. River lays just below, having spent the past thousands of years carving the hills of Mount Washington to the North, and Chavez Ravine to the West. The sounds of traffic on the 110 and 5 freeways and the industry along the river echo up through the valleys, mixing with the familiar East Side chorus of barking dogs, playing children, and Norteño music. Within this scene the downtown skyline feels within reach.

Below the hill in Lincoln Heights, the other end of Avenue 33 comes to a halt at the 110 freeway, just past Pieter, a performance space and studio of the dancer, choreographer, and costumer Jmy James Kidd. Here, she developed Welcome, a piece for her new group the Sunland Dancers, performed on Flat Top at sunset in June 2013.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill


Have you performed outdoors before?

Jmy James Kidd: Yeah, but not in a while.

I was in New York for about ten years. I didn't really want to do my own work inside of the New York system, because you just have to just climb the ladder. It's all about making it very successful.

So I did this thing that was called Modern Garage Movement. I just a made a piece in my stepdad's garage in San Francisco. And then we were like, "Oh, we can tour this." Dance people don't really have that type of touring model that rock bands do. So we were like, "Yeah, we can be like a rock band."

That actually got really boring because every venue was black and smelled like beer. You couldn't really go roll around on the floor, because it was nasty.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill


Really, we had the best time performing outside. We would just tumble out of the car and do dancing out in the field or by the side of the road. Not even for an audience or nothing really prepared, and that was really fun.

We would make dances that were expandable and retractable, depending on the site. We would build in all of these elements that could go in different directions once we got to the location. Everything was geared towards being able to figure out things really quickly. We would wear our outfits around, we would wear them to bed, we just wore them the whole time so we'd be ready to go.

We would learn from every performance. And usually, by the end of the tour, we were like, "Okay, we know what this piece is about."

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

Did those tours draw you back to L.A.?

Yeah. Because I grew up in San Francisco I had a notion of Los Angeles as being real smoggy and dry and filled with bubbleheads. But every time I came to Los Angeles I really loved it. I mean, there were the avocados. And I did want to get a studio.

In 2009, I got the space, and opened it up. I love all the windows and I love the floor. I actually really love the columns too. My agenda is just to to just run it very efficiently, which I think just takes a little bit of time.

I really like this warm, dry weather. I feel like it's healthy for my body. And I love the food that's here. And people give you space. I've been able to delve into my emotional world, which I wasn't able to do because I was so busy in New York. It's so beautiful here at times. It's kind of stunning, the quality of the light, which makes me really happy.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

I really have been trying to follow more of a pleasure principle with my body, with my dances. Welcome was really about making a piece that felt good and that wasn't stressful on the dancer and on the body in general. A lot of it is about the relationship between the dancers, and then the relationship of the dancers to the choreography - the timing and the cues. You get really stressed out, "Okay, am I on the right cue?" So trying to figure out ways to be easeful.

At your studio you did a warm-up that was just silent relaxation and stretching.

We have to put on the timer and have it be no talking, so we really just fall into our bodies. It's not just doing the exercises to get your muscles ready, It's also getting into the space of being connected to your body.

Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Everyone has really different needs. So we take care of ourselves and then come together to work. That's where we kind of unpack the movement and really get very physical.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

What appealed to you about this site?

That site was very special because Tara Jane had taken me there, and then we ended up buying a house just right down the hill from it. It feels like it's the end of the world, in a way. downtown just looks like building blocks. It doesn't really look real. It's very cinematic. There's dust in the air. It sort of flattens out. It was so amazing, we could have just done nothing. We probably just could have stood there.

And then you ended up bringing in Tara Jane to work on the music for the dance?

Tara Jane and I were at my studio between Christmas and New Year's, and we just holed up in the studio and worked for a week. She was working on her record, and that was when I really started working on this dance. When it actually came down time for her to make something for it, I didn't have to give her any background - she had been there for the beginning of it.

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She made something that I do really think was a mirror of an inner landscape of the dance. When we went out on the hill, she just gave us this very beautiful container to be in.

There's also something that's very trancelike about the dance, like it's kind of just a visual kaleidoscope. So she's doing that with the sound, too. She created something that you didn't know that it was coming up, and all of a sudden you were inside of it.

The music was already happening when the audience showed up, because it starts with this long period of silence. It's like the John Cage effect.

She really allowed for people to listen to the environment and be aware of their surroundings. It felt like that inside of the dance, too.

It was amazing to see everyone get out of their cars and just walk. To have the dance start and then to feel the audience walk towards us, that was amazing, because we were just standing there, feeling the space.

And also remembering that walk on the hill, to know that that was an experience that these people were having, out on this dirt road on top of Los Angeles, for the first time.


Interview has been condensed and edited.

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill


The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill

The Sunland Dancers at Flat Top Hill


See more Machine Project:

Welcome to the Field Guide to L.A. Architecture
Artbound will be chronicling the collective creation of the Machine Project "Field Guide to L.A. Architecture" by featuring a diverse offering of essays, interviews, and the artists' videos.

17 Weird Pool Performances Your Swim Coach Doesn't Want You To Know About
In "Wash," an audience was encouraged to swim and explore an underwater viewing room over the course of a slowly shifting three-hour pool performance.

Jacqueline Gordon's L.A. Food Center Soundscapes
"Everyone Will Be Here Now But Me" is an immersive sound installation where the public explores endless hallways, windowless offices, and stairwells of a mixed-use building.

The HafoSafo Chorus and the Sunset Foot Clinic Sign Online
Machine Project leads a singalong underneath the spinning "Happy Foot/Sad Foot" sign on Sunset Blvd.

Cliff Hengst's Semi-Fictionalized, Drag Double-Decker Bus Tour
Artist Cliff Hengst embarked from The Beverly Hilton to perform "It's Not Right But It's OK," perhaps the first ever historic autobiographical semi-fictionalized disembodied drag double decker bus tour.

Sara Roberts' Clump and Whistle
Clump is an experiment in group/crowd behavior, a participatory performance based on a simple rule set but without fixed outcome or direction.


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About the Author

Bennett Williamson was born in Boston and lives in Santa Cruz.
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