Real estate's prevailing axiom, "location, location, location," is something Heidi Duckler, whom the Los Angeles Times once dubbed the "reigning queen of site-specific dance," has taken to heart. Whether choreographing in and around laundromats, shuttered hospitals, bowling alleys or police academies, Duckler continues to mine magic in her choice of venue, tapping a collective vein that, in the process, invariably unlocks complex emotions.
In this year, the 30th anniversary of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, the award-winning choreographer/director is on a roll, literally and figuratively, as she celebrates the milestone by presenting a number of premieres at unusual and intriguing sites throughout our sprawl-to-the-wall city.
Since January, when Duckler presented a re-imagining of her 1992 "Parts and Labor" at the Sci-Arc parking lot, where she gave co-star billing to a 1970 Coupe de Ville Cadillac that she found on eBay, the indefatigable art-maker has also taken her troupe to Morphosis, the sumptuous headquarters of Pritzker Prize-winning starchitect, Thom Mayne, where the dancers performed "Space Opera," in, on and around the building.
The banner year also saw the company cavorting in an erstwhile printing warehouse in Chinatown ("Chinatown Blues") in May, followed by "Brush Up," the next month at the Brand Library. The latter work featured one of Japan's top calligraphers wielding a gigantic brush around a floor-sized canvas, with the dancers responding to the visuals in a series of breaking, popping, and krumping moves.
Currently, in what might be Duckler's most ambitious work to date, she is presenting "Sophie & Charlie," or, what the choreographer likes to call, the first "dance telenovela." The premise concerns a pair of lovers whose story unfolds over four consecutive weeks, in four different L.A. neighborhoods. The three remaining performances are October 1 at Venice's Beyond Baroque, October 11 at a semi-vacant hospital in Crenshaw and October 18 at Kings Road Park, West Hollywood.
As to the genesis of the dance performances that will be filmed, Duckler admits she's never actually seen a telenovela, a type of limited-run serial drama popular on, among others, Brazilian, Portuguese and Spanish television networks.
"I don't even speak Spanish," Duckler says with a laugh. "It does seem odd, but I'm loving it so much, because for many of my projects we had to move in, do it quickly and move out. "Chinatown Blues" was a construction site and was going to be [turned] into something else. It's a lot of work for a project that can only last for a weekend.
"But I love working quickly," added Duckler, who has staged more than 200 works in places as far flung as Australia, Russia and Hong Kong. "It's not that I don't, but dancers are available and they want to do something that will last, where we can inhabit a building for an extended period of time. It's a deeper experience -- to do something that can last. And that's more enduring."
Duckler explained that the idea took hold in her über-active mind because she was thinking about something episodic. "One thing led to another and then to this danced telenovela. I've been doing a lot of duets and it was [the notion of] following this couple -- Sophie and Charlie -- in a deeper way. How can this couple travel throughout the city? If I couldn't stay in one location, maybe I can do multiple locations."
And voilà, a terpsichorean telenovela was born.
The first episode took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church, a 1940s edifice in Studio City, and was called "Sophie & Charlie: At the Funeral." Here the couple -- blazingly danced by HDDT associate artistic director, Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo and Joe Schenck, who perform the titular roles throughout the work's run -- did not meet cute, but met somber, mourning someone they both knew.
Accompanied by the riveting improvisational music of pianist/composer William Goldstein and former violin prodigy, Lili Haydn (Duckler is providing live music for all works presented this year), the mood was requisitely solemn. Amid the maroon-colored carpet and burnished wood beams of the ascetic-looking building, 120 audience members (over two shows), were treated to an up-close-and-personal dance of the highest order.
Barcelo, her face beatific in grief, sat at the rear of the stage, as Willy Souly, the Officiant, stretched out an arm before offering a chest-beating gesture, one of defiance.
Yes, death sucks, so one might as well dance. The nimble Souly, almost jig-like in several stances, eventually assumed a neo-crucifixion pose to the heart-wrenching sounds of Haydn's violin and Goldstein's Debussyan chords, before taking a seat near the stage. Schenck too, looked crushed, his eyes meeting Barcelo's for the first time over a small pine box. A fluttering hand motif coursed through the work, with the couple's pas de deux a push-pull of emotions, their chemistry palpable.
When the lid of the coffin began to open, revealing a jaunty arm, the Deceased, Brelin Andreus, became, not "The Walking Dead," but the dancing dead. Compact with long dreads, Andreus offered a "no-bones" style à la Lil Buck, whose jookin' to Saint-Saëns's "The Dying Swan" catapulted Buck to fame. Moving down the aisle to the rear of the church, Andreus mesmerized with this ghostly dance, the dimly lit chandeliers glowing softly overhead before a brief intermission had "visitors" turn their chairs around for the finale.
Haydn appeared on the balcony beneath a backdrop of Grant Dunn's projections, which ranged from bucolic to Rorschach-ian and psychedelic, playing a virtuosic solo oozing with double and triple stops -- think Jascha Heifetz meets Jimi Hendrix -- with Barcelo, whose legs seem to have a mind of their own, soon joining her in the loft area. So, too, did Schenck, as Sophie and Charlie have what can only be described as a joint, in-body experience.
The duo ended their anti-romp on the floor of the church, leaving viewers satisfied, but also curious as to how -- and where -- the relationship will evolve. (Additional dancers in the remaining episodes are Nick Heitzeberg, Roberto C. Lambaren, Akela Auer, Shantel Urena and Zoë Nelson.)
Not wanting to give away any "spoilers," but doing so to a degree, Duckler said that after the funeral, the couple has their first date at Beyond Baroque, where harpist/beatboxer Phillip King performs and "Charlie gets drunk and belligerent and embarrasses her."
"This first date isn't what Sophie had in mind," Duckler continued wryly. "It starts out great and after the poetry performance, there is a reception. He passes out in the courtyard and she sulks away."
Unseen by the audience, though, is the plot point whereby Charlie gets in a car wreck on the way home, with the next episode, "Intensive Care," featuring the splendid sounds of tubaist William Roper and Judicanti Responsura (Roper and percussionist Joseph Mitchell), taking place in a near-abandoned hospital in Crenshaw.
Each episode also features a voice-over, bringing viewers up to date on these, well, dancecapades. When Sophie visits Charlie at the hospital, he apologizes and she falls madly in love.
"We have a scene in the operating room and we use operating lights that are old LEDs from the '50s," explained Duckler. "There's also a passionate scene in the bed, with the two of them ending up in glass isolation wards, where they pine for each other."
The fourth and final installment, "Garden Bout," is set to a previously composed score by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet, four men who will each have 10-footlong tables filled with various instruments. The setting is the lodge at Kings Road Park, with the director letting on that the couple goes for a picnic, but by story's end, amid big rocks and a waterfall, Sophie and Charlie break up.
Of the numerous locations Duckler has used in her three-decade career, one wonders if the idea comes first or the site?
"Both," she exclaimed," and "people are always giving me suggestions, which I love. The Crenshaw hospital was because somebody told me about it. The church I had driven by. I also knew I wanted to spread the story out in different parts of the city. I love the Beyond Baroque building and had never done anything there. A poetry reading is kind of romantic and would make a nice first date."
Each venue presents both possibilities and challenges, with the hospital having a unique, if you will, ambience. "Part of it is semi-vacant," said Duckler, "and half of it still operates as a clinic. But it's deteriorating and the parts that are there are totally creepy. We're only using two rooms, but they did give us 10 rehearsals."
The park where the couple breaks up is tiny and in a residential area, but it was the mid-century lodge that appealed to Duckler. "You're sitting in the lodge and you're surrounded by percussionists. You look through the windows and there's this waterfall and you see Sophie and Charlie. It's really cool."
As for the criteria Duckler uses in choosing a site, she said she has to fall in love with it. "Also, I feel like a site needs you, [whereas] some places are over theatricalized, like the Americana Mall."
Having live music for all performances during her anniversary year was also a must for the director. "It's such an incredible element," enthused Duckler, "because it's live, it's fully charged. There's nothing canned. It's so emotional, it makes it gripping."
Duckler noted that with live musicians, anything can happen. "Really. That's the thing about the sites, too. You can hear an ambulance go by. These are the unplanned moments that could become part of the performance in real time."
Duckler, whose numerous honors include a National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpiece award, said she choreographs in silence. She then sends the musicians a video of the choreography. "When we meet with them, the work gets deeper."
All four episodes will be filmed this month, with Duckler acknowledging that she looked at sites with the camera in mind, save for the church.
"In the others you are looking at something through a screen, because it's a telenovela. In the lodge you look through sliding glass doors, in the hospital in the ICU, you look through glass windows. It's a voyeuristic way of seeing something and that's like the screen of the TV. It frames the movement that way."
With today's audiences having Twitter-like attention spans and where dances choreographed for TV shows like "So You Think You Can Dance," generally encompassing about two minutes, Duckler said her goal -- and main test -- "was to make a dance work that lasts for five hours."
"As an artist, if I can sustain that and make a lasting impression, [I'm hoping] the audience would be interested in following that journey with me."
Added Duckler, whose 30th anniversary year culminates in a performance and gala at the L.A. Wholesale Produce Market on October 24 (and yes, there will be a bit of "Sophie & Charlie"): "Intimacy is important, intimacy with the couple. You have to be inside of it. The challenge for the filmed episodes, which will be about 12 minutes each, is to make sure the intimacy stays."
And for those folks who might want more of Sophie and Charlie?
"This is the thing I've learned about a telenovela that makes it different than soap operas," Duckler emphasized. "It is very short-lived. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It's very interesting how much it is about social class, but with magical thinking. It has sort of a structure that they all have -- a catastrophe -- and then they're over."
More on Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre:
'Parts and Labor' Returns: Heidi Duckler's Cadillac Dance
The Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre launches its 30-year anniversary celebration with a re-imagining their car-centric work, first performed in 1992, as "Parts and Labor, Redux."
Game, Set, Site: Reflecting on 'At the Oasis'
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's mobile "Duck Truck" brings site-specific performances to various locations in Los Angeles.
From Time to Time: Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre Engages Audiences Across California
The Duck Truck has provided a venue to direct arts engagement for over 520 young people in Inglewood, Boyle Heights, and Culver City.