Electrifying Ordinary Space: Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre

Governing Bodies 2010, Photo: Andre Andreev
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's Governing Bodies 2010. Photo: Andre Andreev.

For 27 years, Heidi Duckler has been asking Los Angeles to give her some space.

As the artistic/executive director of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, Duckler's site-specific productions continue to transform spaces around L.A.--and the world--into metaphorical expressions of Duckler's imagination.

Beyond dazzling the crowd with the sheer acrobatics of the performance, her works offer an opportunity to explore ideas around mythical characters and history from a different vantage point. For example, the company's recent production of "Cleopatra CEO" recast the former ARCO headquarters in Downtown L.A. as an ancient battleground inspired by the feminine power of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

With more than 100 pieces set in some of the most unexpected places, curious spectators across Southern California may have happened upon her dancers climbing scaffolding in an abandoned lot in Little Ethiopia, embracing a glass cube in Riverside or gyrating around L.A. City Hall's 3rd floor rotunda.

Now, back for another spin is the L.A.-based company's signature production Laundromatinee, which will be presented June 16, 2012 at the La Brea Coin Op.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's Laundromatinee 2008 | Photo: Vivian Babuts.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's Laundromatinee 2008 | Photo: Vivian Babuts.

Laundromatinee, which first debuted in Santa Monica in 1988 at the Thriftiwash, was born from the idea of "extinction." The piece recaptures the coin-op Laundromat as a public meeting ground where people would commune to do their wash. Today, Duckler says, with washers and dryers tucked into closets in apartments and buried in the basement of homes, it's become a privatized experience.

Saturday's production culminates a two-year American Masterpieces Dance award for the piece by The National Endowment for the Arts (out of 62 awards, Duckler and the Music Center were the only two Los Angeles recipients). The work was also performed at the Spin Cycle Laundr-o-mat in Historic Fillipinotown as part of the grant, which included master classes, open rehearsals and post-concert discussions.

Duckler is making sure the iconic work continues to tumble forth by teaching it to students through a new academic residency program that the award also helps support. This month she heads to San Francisco to teach a "Choreography for an Urban Landscape" workshop with ODC students at Sean's Laundromat in the Mission District. She's also taught the piece to dance students at University of Oregon in Eugene, Culver City High School and College of the Canyons in Valencia.

"Every time we do the work, it's a little different. We change it up and adapt to different Laundromats," she says. "We can repeat the work and cycle it like the wash because it's only a half hour. One crowd goes out, another crowd comes in."

What are some of your favorite Laundromatinee memories??

In 2006, we performed the work as part of the Sightlines festival in New York. The performance was highly publicized, and we were "in residence" at a postage-sized Laundromat way down, south of the East Village on Elizabeth Street. The crowd spilled way out into the streets, and people were crowded around the storefront looking in the Laundromat. There were even fistfights that broke out because they were all trying to see the show! I didn't mean for that to happen...!

At another performance in L.A., a man came in with a load of wash just as we were about to start. I asked him (kindly!) if he wouldn't mind holding off and watching the show for 20 or 30 minutes before starting his wash. He was very persistent and said, "No! I want to do my wash now!" So, there he was doing his load of wash, and we just did our thing. Afterwards audience members said, "Where did you get that actor?! He was perfect!" Moments when real life and art are completely intertwined are the ones I love the most.

Tell me how you came to receive an American Masterpiece award.

The National Endowment for the Arts has an application program for American Masterpieces. Typically, these awards are given to really well-known choreographers who perform in the traditional theatre setting. After the NEA agreed to consider a piece in a Laundromat as a "masterpiece," I submitted a proposal, and was awarded! I heard later that the panel loved debating about what constitutes a "masterpiece." Can it be at the lowly Laundromat? I think so!

How do you see different spaces as they relate to performance?

I see ordinary space in ways that can be animated to give it a whole different usage. Abandoned spaces are very evocative to me. So many spaces are interesting. Like this place (she looks around the new KCET offices)... I can see our dancers vaulting over these desks... And you'd never see the space the same again!

Do you have a concept in mind and then find the space, or do you see a space and the concept comes to mind?

It depends. Sometimes we've are commissioned to create a work in a specific venue, so in that case the space comes first. Other times, I find a venue that I am particularly drawn to or already have a concept in mind, and then we seek out the venue's owner. In both cases, the concept and the space end up being intrinsically intertwined. I love finding a space, become enlightened, and have that location evoke a story I want to tell. Even though you might have certain ideas, you have to be fluid and allow them to change when working with a particular site. All my work is created in the space; we never rehearse in the studio and transfer the piece. Sometimes you have great ideas, but when you work with them on site, they shift and change directions. There have also been times where we work with community members and incorporate them into the piece. I love the notion of community and finding ways that it can be part of the production, for each site is not just a venue it's a place where people live, eat, work, think, and contribute.

Any favorite spots along the way?

Some of the most interesting places we've performed are those that have been around for a long time, and the world hasn't been watching. In the '90s, I did a piece in Atwater when it was still a village. There was nothing there. I just hung out, had tacos, and met the people who lived there. I remember finding an accordion school nearby and asking them to perform with us. I met a man who ran a Harley-Davidson club and told me how their motorcycles sounded like music. It was so grassroots, but now the world feels more manipulated. When things are already built for you it seems there is less to discover. It is harder to find authenticity.

How much of what your dancers do is rooted in technique and how much of it is improvised?

The end product is completely choreographed. But the process is based on improvisation. All the dancers are very skilled and technically the finest. They are so well-trained. Even though the work has a very playful look to it, everything the artists are doing is carefully designed.

Heidi Duckler | Photo: Andre Andreev.
Heidi Duckler | Photo: Andre Andreev.

Where do you find your dancers or do they find you?

I do not hold auditions like a traditional dance company. I find my collaborators through word-of-mouth and recommendations. It takes a certain type of dancer to want to take on such challenging work. The work is demanding and very spatial: How compact can you make your body to squeeze into this drawer? How can you fall off the top of this desk and roll onto the chair? Partnering skills are critical to have as a dancer in this company because each space becomes a partner.

Do dancers need to wear protective gear with all the tumbling and climbing?

You do get bruised, but we find safe ways of moving in every project. You do not want to be padded; you want to be connected. What we wear depends where we are, for we could be in the river, on a rooftop, or inside a tunnel. Every space dictates something different both logistically and artistically. We just did a piece on three stories of scaffolding. The dancers needed gloves to climb on the metal surface, so the gloves became part of the costume and overall piece. Many times the costumes are practical.

How does working internationally impact your work here?

I learn so much from being around other cultures. The different ways of thinking about space is so interesting and inspiring, and each culture has its own boundaries. I would love to do more international work because it is very challenging. You have all kinds of factors to consider on the road ---weather, health, language, and so on. You are not there physically as you plan to go abroad, so when you arrive you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

Russia is such a dramatic place. Everything changes drastically; it can be hot one day and freezing rain the next. When we performed there in 2010, it had recently poured, so there were deep puddles. Around 500 people came out in the rain from the theater to watch our piece on a loading dock, and it glistened in the rain. In the middle of our piece, a news crew arrived, and the newscaster stood right in front of the piece doing a broadcast as we were performing! There was nothing I could do because it wasn't my culture or my country, so the newscast happened. It was one of those strange, strange moments. You kind of wonder, "Wow what was she thinking?" "Where are her boundaries?" But you know typically the public enters a proscenium stage setting, and they know what to do - sit down and watch a performance. But here the show is somewhere else, they do not always know where to be or where to look. Site-work plays with cultural boundaries, which is fascinating to me.

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's Longing 2007 | Photo: Christ Kuhl.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's Longing 2007 | Photo: Christ Kuhl.

In 2007 in Hong Kong, the audience watched everything through a lens. During the performance, they were taking pictures and crowding the dancers. One woman started going snap, snap, snap with this big Nikon really close to the dancers who could hardly move because they were up against a wall. So the dancers made a split second decision and engulfed her into the choreography. The whole audience, about 1,000 people, all started laughing and moved back. Then the dancers lifted up this woman and spun her back out into the audience. Everyone was laughing.

What should people know about you?

I love working with all kinds of people, cultures, and environments. I am always learning and making new discoveries. The thing about creating site work is that it is always fresh, and you cannot control your environment. As in life, you have to be flexible and learn to go with the unexpected, so it is never boring. The process is never the same twice. I crave that.

What are you working on next?

I have a new idea, but it's still in its early stages. Usually site work is embedded in a place. But in this case, we have an airstream trailer, so the work is going to be mobile and reflect the landscape as it travels. It will be stationary when it's performing, but we will be able to take it anywhere. We are testing the idea out in a workshop this June in Portland, and then we will drive the airstream down to sunny Southern California. I am working with a videographer and composer, and we have been toying with the idea of the trailer being closed capsule that you could look in the windows and see what is happening on the inside. Then, the trailer could open up and become something else. I am also thinking a lot about this whole food truck phenomenon, and potentially incorporating a menu that the audience could order different dances from...who knows! There is a lot to think about still...


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