Dancing About Architecture: Heidi Duckler Goes to Boyle Heights

Heidi Duckler's Expulsion Photo by Andre Andreev.JPG
Heidi Duckler's Expulsion Photo by Andre Andreev.

Dance should be everywhere. That's the worldview of Heidi Duckler, a choreographer who breaks down the separation of audience and dancers, creating performances that interweave artistry with the urban environments. She's created performances in offices, bus stations, and even an intersection. One thing is certain: her works aren't flash mobs, marketing ploys, or viral videos. Instead, these interactive pieces obliterate the way we usually think of performance. The ordinary sites of these performances become redefined by the invisible trace of the dance left in the minds of its viewers. Her latest piece," Expulsion," in collaboration with Danza Floricanto/USA, brings her dancers to Boyle Heights, dangling them throughout scaffolding.

Artbound caught up with Duckler to explore why she chose the site, how an environment informs her practice, and what's next for her dance troupe.

What is it about scaffolding that makes you want to stage a dance piece within in it?

The scaffolding represents the first stage of rebuilding. When I first started the series in 2010 in Long Beach, the concept of animating vacant land deeply resonated with me, and I wanted the piece to reflect how the arts can contribute to community transformation and social bonding. Architect Alex Ward of LXW Design, Inc. worked with me to design an adaptable scaffolding structure that would become our cross-cultural home throughout the series.

What role does the sense of place - the neighborhood of Boyle Heights - play in this piece?

A 'sense of place' is a critically important part of all of our work at Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre. As a site-specific dance company, this concept is often the first thing that we discuss in the creative development of each work. With "Expulsion," we ground the work with our community partners - both artistically and administratively. Gema Sandoval of Danza Floricanto/USA and I will tell our 'expulsion stories' through movement, and we will create a 'sense of place' and belonging for the two cultures within the industrial scaffolding.

Heidi Duckler's "Expulsion" | Photo: Andre Andreev.
Heidi Duckler's ";Expulsion"| Photo: Andre Andreev.

In addition to the actual performance place, we have made this project an inclusive community-based event. Our nonprofit partner, the East Los Angeles Community Corporation has played a large role in the development of this project, for the individuals who can best define a 'sense of place' are those who inhabit that very place - much of our work including our pre-performance panel and new (and exciting!) relationship with East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy is a result of this collaboration and community building.

How do you think this piece connects or works in opposition to the previous works of Expulsion that you've staged?

Each rendition of "Expulsion" reveals new cultural insights. Since the start of the series, we have worked with the Cambodian, Armenian, Korean, Ethiopian, and Native American cultures, so the project has literally taken us all over the world. Each collaboration brings new language barriers and cultural differences (as well as similarities!) to the rehearsal process, and the success of the project is directly tied to the partners. Gema has been fantastic! From her artistic expertise to loaning us a sound board (sometimes it's the little things!), working with her has been a complete joy.

What creative processes did it take to create this piece? How did the dancers prepare?

The first thing the dancers do is grab a wrench and adjust the scaffolding. Just kidding! Sort of...while we try to use the same scaffolding company with each project, there's always a bit of handy work needing to be done on the first day of rehearsal. Then we have to take a look at the ten-day forecast. Since the performance is outside, we have to be very careful with rain and extreme heat. Actually, the four men wear gloves to protect their skin from the harsh metal.

After performing together since 2010, our four dancers - Nick Heitzeberg, Willy Souly, Rawb Lambaren, and Joe Schenck - have really become a family. Upon arriving on site this time around, the team actually called the scaffolding their "home" - a direct theme of the work. Their bodies know the work inside and out, and it truly reads in their performance.

Heidi Duckler's "Expulsion" | Photo: Sarah Tamor.
Heidi Duckler's "Expulsion"| Photo: Sarah Tamor.

What were the differences in the way Danza Floricanto/USA and your company perform? What was the connective tissue between your companies?

Danza Floricanto/USA is the oldest existing professional Mexican folk dance troupe in Southern California, and I have been friends with Gema Sandoval (the Artistic Director) since the early 1990s. We have followed each other's companies, collectively served on panels, and grown together as artists and friends over the years. When it came time for the company to present "Expulsion East LA," working with her was my first choice! The rehearsal process has not only been fun, but also very inspiring as Gema's work is deeply rooted in the Mexican heritage with Fandango style footwork, while mine explores individuals' responses to surroundings and physicalizing of concepts.

In the particular case, the connective tissue is the content of the "Expulsion" project. As our two companies tell our respective expulsion stories, we create a home within the scaffolding together.

Heidi Duckler's "Expulsion" | Photo: Andre Andreev.
Heidi Duckler's "Expulsion" | Photo: Andre Andreev.

How much of the performance is improvisation?
The full work is choreographed.

What is the next piece that your company will produce in the upcoming months?

We currently in the thick of developing my new work entitled At the Oasis. As a site-specific choreographer of over 30 years, this production - which is being created into and around a 1961 vintage Oasis trailer - is my first mobile experiment. Building on the Expulsion Series' examination of the idea of "home," this work will explore "home" as something one takes with them as they travel, move, and participate in daily life. A reaction to Los Angeles' sprawling, mobile climate, the traveling production will become an inclusive public engagement vehicle.


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