The term "site-specific" is seemingly self-explanatory, like "to-go" and "on the side." Placed before nouns including, but not limited to dance, art, and performance, "site-specific" informs the reader and audience that the work is specific to the site, or crafted to inhabit the venue in which the work takes place. Similarly, menu choices "to-go" are prepared to go, while items "on the side" actually sit to the side of the main course. So what would happen if we switched the modifying phrases around? Art to-go? Dance on the side? Site-specific culinary experiences? What if "to-go" was literally applied to a performance? Would the entire piece be an entrance and an exit? The opposite of Waiting for Godot? Would Vladimir and Estragon go to Godot instead of endlessly waiting on the side of the stage?
As an English grammar nut (forgive any comma errors you might find...), I am drawn to the linguistic complications of Heidi Duckler's new work. It is contradictory and initially dubious: a traveling site-specific performance. And, there we have it. The project is fundamentally rooted in one of the English language's most trying conundrums:
The controlled chaos of Heidi's Feedback project deliberately questions the calculated spontaneity of audience involvement and community engagement in traveling site-specific work. Using the above Airstream trailer as the set, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre artists and collaborators will "feed" audiences performances that are crafted by their choices off the Feedback "menu." Through happy hours and staff meetings, Heidi has mulled over (and over) the specific items to be offered - spring rolls, strawberry shortcake, smashed pea soup, and tossed salad. Toying with language is a habit of Heidi's (Laundromatinee being one of my personal favorites), and the relationship between the language of the Feedback menu, physical movement, and surrounding community will no doubt be a witty one.
Inventors and ingénues often integrate language into their work; broken sentences from famous documents, generous political claims, memorable advertising taglines, and outspoken comedic opinions dot the current artistic landscape. There is nothing quite like watching a performer twist his or her body while demanding that "we the people of the United States" should "think outside the bun."
And if by "bun" this unnamed performer means "site-specific performance," I agree.
Ah, the metaphor. Like a simile, but different. (Nerd alert.)
During my past 11 months working with Heidi, I have realized that about 90% of what she attempts is "outside the bun" (the remaining 10% being obligatory managerial tasks like filing taxes and showing up on time). While she has created many works that are deeply embedded in a place, where the specific location and setting are essential to the performance, she rarely sees the final product as "final." Conversations revolving around how and where to revisit work infiltrate my daily grantwriting, emailing, and phone answering.
The Feedback project intentionally confronts the question: is site-specific work geographically defined or can it focus on the people who inhabit or visit it? Inspired by the food truck phenomenon of Portland and Los Angeles, Feedback will reference the concepts presented by mobile cuisine including immediate gratification and quick/inexpensive nourishment. Rather than food of countless cultural fusions, dances of varying spice, heat, and complexity will be served at the audience's request. Upon arrival on site, dancers will spill out of the vehicle with choreography, text, and a score comprised of the familiar noises of a kitchen, and the artists will directly request "orders" - "Would you like that with extra cheese?" And the dancer adds a bit of Broadway flair. By breaking the boundary of a set "stage" or "site-specific" space with direct contact, Feedback will address and overrule practical barriers such as transportation, parking, and high-ticket prices. Not only will the observers be in very close proximity of the performers, but also props, text, and gestures will drive the work and themes forward. Feedback will thrive within the intersection of dance, music, community engagement, and (dare I say it?) site-specific performance, on the side...to go.
By putting the performance on wheels, Heidi will be able to take the Feedback project to neighborhoods in and outside of Los Angeles. Her collaborators and performers will not only be breaking the traditional touring model (or "bun" if you will), but also opening a myriad of opportunities for the arts to reach individuals "to-go." What if "site-specific" was in fact "to-go," and the dance was "on the side?" Could the traveling Feedback truck activate an entire town? What would happen if the dancing "chuck-wagon" of sorts appeared in Whittier or the City of Commerce? Is this brand of site-specific performance the future for alternatives for performances?
Top Image: A sneak peak preview performance of Feedback on the north side of the river in Portland at sunset featuring dancers Marissa Labog (LA), Joe Schenck (LA), Carla Mann (Portland), Noel Plemmons (Portland) | Photo: Nick Shepard.
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