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'Parts and Labor' Returns: Heidi Duckler's Cadillac Dance

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"Parts & Labor." | Photo: Mae Koo.

As author Joan Didion, who championed the notion of driving as more-than-driving, wrote in her acclaimed 1979 collection, "The White Album": "The [California] freeway system...is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it."

Heidi Duckler, raised in Portland, Oregon, but longtime L.A. resident (she graduated from UCLA), is the reigning Goddess of site-specific dance. She couldn't agree more with Didion's astute observation. Indeed, her troupe, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, in launching its 30-year anniversary celebration, is re-imagining her car-centric work, first performed in 1992, as "Parts and Labor, Redux." Of the original work, the Times' Lewis Segal wrote: "Its most inspired passages qualify as pure junkyard art: abandoned objects and even buildings transformed into integral components of uproariously inventive music and dance."

Duckler, who has created more than 200 dance pieces around the world, and whose awards include a City of L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs COLA Award, California Arts Council Choreography Fellowship and National Endowment of the Arts American Masterpiece award, felt the time was right to bring back "Parts and Labor," which will be performed Thursday and Friday behind L.A.C.E. in Hollywood, and downtown on Saturday at Sci-Arc. The audience for all shows (about 75 for each performance), will be seated on campstools in a U-shaped formation.

Erudite and enthusiastic, Duckler explained why she wanted to start her anniversary year with this vintage work: "It's very much a piece that integrates music and dance with a car, and since the original musicians were still around -- percussionists Bob Fernandez and MB Gordy of Antenna Repairman, I thought this would be perfect."

Duckler recalled that the 1990's was a fruitful time for her, when she was making works about L.A. Some of those seminal pieces included "Mother Ditch," at the L.A. River and "Out of Circulation" at the Santa Monica library.

"Parts & Labor" | Photo: Heidi Duckler
"Parts & Labor." | Photo: Heidi Duckler.

"It was easier then," added Duckler. "It wasn't as complicated. And of course," the blonde with boundless energy exclaimed, "a car piece seemed like a great thing to do. We did it at a couple of gas stations -- one in the valley and one on the West Side. Life in L.A. was very regionalized and people in the valley weren't going to the West Side, so we went to them."

Duckler thought that "Parts and Labor," part of her Urban Extinction Series, was the perfect piece to tour. "We would move the car, travel and stop."

Back then the cars she featured were a beat-up 1976 Cadillac wired with mini-microphones, a 1983 Peugeot 505 filled with wine bottles, French bread and lingerie, and a late-model Volvo station wagon. Flash forward to 2015 and Duckler has purchased a 1970 Coupe de Ville Cadillac that she found on EBay, traveling to Rancho Cucamonga to retrieve it. The gold-colored Caddy with a pliable black vinyl top, boasted only one previous owner, with the odometer reading a shockingly low, 16,549 miles, its original California plate reading 029 TPH.

Duckler, a serious artist, is decidedly not without humor. "We drove it to L.A. and the minute it got here, the car died."

Observing a rehearsal on a chilly night in the Sci-Arc parking lot, this viewer, as well as three dancers -- Christopher Bordenave, Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo and Zoë Nelson (Nick Heitzeberg was out with the flu) -- were bundled up accordingly. The trio was moving to both taped sounds (70's hits, including a disco arrangement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from the film, "Saturday Night Fever") and the hip, albeit intense, bursts of drumming executed on the Caddy by Fernandez and Gordy, the duo making use of the entire car, including the hubcaps. The rhythms were infectious, with the score more akin to "Bang-On-A-Caddy," than the New York music festival known as "Bang-On-A-Can."

In actuality, one might think of the work as a kind of jam -- minus the traffic.

"I recently dug up the script," said Duckler. "I found an old fax and I could barely read it. But since I'm redoing the piece, I'm abstracting it and it's more about relationships."

The '92 work featured four women, including Duckler, in long black veils meant to be Middle Eastern and cradling gas pump nozzles, before changing costumes into doctors' scrub suits, the Caddy eventually going into labor and giving birth- - to a very unusual hood ornament.

"Maybe it was ahead of its time," Duckler recalled, "those black chadors. We were rehearsing in Studio City and a cop drives up and we're dancing on oil drums. I got a call from a neighbor that we were out there practicing witchcraft. It was pre 9/11 and a completely different mindset. We used those old fuel pumps that looked like guns. It wouldn't be funny today and we're not doing that, but back then, people were laughing."

The artistic climate of the 1990s, recalled Duckler, was more forgiving. "There were more individual artists doing their thing. No one was planning works in a big way, but people were making it happen. If you had an idea, you could do it. Karen Goodman was making work, Rudy Perez. There were arts budgets back then, and a lot of work was coming into town and a lot of work was being made in town.

"Today," Duckler continued," nobody is presenting local dance. There are so few presenters and so few theaters where performances might run a night or two once a year and then what. We were lucky, because we never waited for anyone to present us -- we made it happen. It's also hard to get coverage by the local press, and because of that it's hard to get funding. In a way, you have to be that little engine that could - and be persistent. I don't blame dancers and troupes for saying, 'Enough already.'

Duckler noted that the revisionist "Parts and Labor" is malleable, with dancers, at times, doing the cha cha in various combinations of solos, duets and trios, moving in and around the car's trunk, as well as romping inside the neo-luxurious interior that has, despite its one-owner pedigree, seen better days. An actor will also play the part of a car salesman, spewing lines such as "If you're an American, you're interested in power.

Rehearsal director Robert Lambaren was also helping keep things fluid, adjusting lights, scoping out tunes, discussing logistics, as Duckler a study in concentration, was virtually building the work anew.

For Duckler -- and many who cherish the open road -- the car is a symbol. "We love and hate our cars. My car is my office. We live in our cars. They just put another lane on the 405 instead of putting the [money] towards public transportation. That's disgraceful. It's a horizontal landscape where people live like turtles. The car is our home."

"Parts & Labor" | Photo: Heidi Duckler
"Parts & Labor." | Photo: Heidi Duckler.

Among Duckler's more recent immersive performances, has been another mobile work, "At the Oasis," in which a 1961 Oasis trailer was driven to various sites where it was then parked and served as a stage. And while getting there is half the fun (it's the journey, not the destination), Duckler has, over the years, cut through scads of bureaucratic red tape, to make works that cover the vast spectrum of L.A. history.

Gone now, once great venues that proved staging grounds for Duckler dancers and actors include Perino's restaurant (Hollywood's glitterati dined there, from Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe to presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan). Duckler also managed to land at the Ambassador Hotel, known for its infamy -- Robert Kennedy was killed in its kitchen in1968 -- as well as its famed Coconut Grove nightclub, where stars such as Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant could be seen imbibing champagne and where the 1940 Oscars Ceremony took place. Alas, the Ambassador was demolished in 2006 to make way for a school campus and Perino's, which had closed in 1986, suffered a similar fate, becoming a 47-unit luxury apartment complex.

More recently, Duckler animated Boyle Heights' shuttered Linda Vista Hospital in a 2013 work, "Groundskeepers," and last November, her troupe took over various parts of the old Dunbar Hotel, which has been converted into 82 affordable housing units. Located in South Central, the Dunbar, in its glory days, presented legendary performers such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson. In short, Duckler understands the first rule of real estate: location, location, location, with a slew of artists having collaborated with her over the years and the list of those wanting to work with her growing.

Percussionist Fernandez, who with Gordy and the late Arthur Jarvinen comprised the original Antenna Repairmen, remembered having an idea for an amplified automobile which led to Duckler's 1992 "Parts and Labor."

"The metal in these pre-60's cars," explained Fernandez, of Cuban heritage, "is incredibly resonant. They don't make them like they used to. I had seen these cars in Cuba when I would go there and thought that if we put pick-ups on them, I bet we could get some good sounds and experiment with where we put them -- the trunk, inside, outside, and lo and behold, the car turned out to be a huge resonant piece of metal."

The Antenna Repairmen worked on several Duckler pieces including 1995's "Mother Ditch," where VW bugs drove into the shallow rushing water of the L.A. River's wide drainage ditch in Atwater Village, and 1997's "Most Wanted," performed at the Lincoln Heights Jail in East Los Angeles.

"These seminal works, including "Laundromatinee," were bubbling," Duckler pointed out. "It was such a prolific time.

Dancer Barcelo a popper, now 31, of Cuban and Spanish descent, has been performing with HDDT for three years.

"Parts & Labor" | Photo: Mae Koo
"Parts & Labor." | Photo: Mae Koo.

"What attracts me to Heidi's work is the need to use your imagination. It's about the space and the situation that is born when you go to a different space and how you can pull a story out of, like, a car. It's awesome. Then it gives your movement purpose, when you're moving from that place instead of just what dance moves are cool. I think Heidi's crazy," added Barcelo, "in a great way."

Now that Cuba has opened up, Duckler said she'd love to go. "What a perfect place to do this piece. I'd have a fleet of cars and it would be so much fun, as well as working with Cuban artists."

Before that might happen, Duckler has big plans for this anniversary year. Upcoming projects include the world premiere of "Sophie & Charlie," a fusion of melodrama, site-specific dance and film, with the duo's progressive narrative engaging global audiences through a weekly web series of episodic dance films shot in front of live audiences throughout L.A. Another world premiere, the large-scale production, "Night Market," is an interactive, site-specific experience that will be performed regularly throughout the multicultural Central Wholesale Market in the Downtown produce district of L.A.

Wherever she is, though, Duckler never fails to wax rhapsodic about her adopted city. "My work has always been environmental. I'm like a Picasso with a sketchbook, and that's why I love living in L.A. I can always find something new here. I'll drive down a side street that I never knew and there's always a discovery."

Related: Watch Heidi Duckler's "At the Oasis"

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's mobile "Duck Truck" brings site-specific performances to various locations in Los Angeles.

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