Nobody ever accused Heidi Duckler of thinking inside the box. The Los Angeles-based choreographer/director who founded her eponymous troupe 32 years ago and has been dubbed “Queen of Site-Specific Dance,” has set her works all around our sprawling megalopolis. Making use of iconic locations that include the L.A. Police Academy, City Hall and the long-gone Ambassador Hotel (the site of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 assassination), to moving in more intimate settings such as laundromats, parking lots and bowling alleys, the gal has guts, grit and gumption to burn.
For the company’s latest work, albeit one in-progress and clocking in at a mere 30-minutes, Duckler attempted to go where others not only have feared to tread, but probably would never have even conceived: “Beyond the Waterfront,” billed as a dance opera and an homage to the late Leonard Bernstein, is a collaboration with Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Maritime Institute, and marine research incubator, AltaSea.
Taking place on the Maritime’s two tall ships (it was AltaSea’s executive director, Jenny Krusoe who first contacted Duckler about fusing the science-driven organization with an artistic project), tall would seem an understatement. The twin brigantines, named Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson, and normally used to take school kids on day trips, weigh in at 128 tons, measuring, from stem to stern, 90 feet high and 110 feet across. Their beauty is breathtaking, with the possibilities of creating movement on and around these vessels vast.
But there was one major problem: Amid the riggings, ropes and other shipboard paraphernalia, the five dancers—Tess Hewlett, Isaac Huerta, Corina Kinnear, Jillian Meyers and Ryan Walker Page—could not really be seen, meaning the work was, for the most part, adrift. On the other hand, a trio of L.A. Opera singers—the stellar soprano Jamie Chamberlin, soprano Lisa Eden and mezzo-soprano Melissa Treinkman—situated on the adjacent ship and conducted by composer, Juhi Bansal, was miked, and consequently, could easily be heard.
Bansal’s original pre-recorded score featured a mix of strings, piano and sampled sounds, including bird songs and plaintive whale calls, with the libretto, “Sirens,” having been adapted from a James Russell Lowell poem from 1840. These lyrics, consisting of five sections and provided in the program, offered a more accessible, if obvious story, and spoke of the sea, ships and death: “Come closer, sailor…moor your ship and hear our song! This is the music nobody knows, for anyone who heard it is dead.”
That is quite the introduction and would have proven powerful, if one were able to actually see the dancers embody this dark, metaphorically-driven tale, which was also, according to press notes, supposed to tackle themes of sustainability and the influence of humanity on the environment. Because none of this was apparent, the experience was both dreamy and frustrating, with an accent on the latter.
As for its movement vocabulary, the work began with a pair of bare-chested men ritualistically throwing water overboard (shades of Titanic, perhaps?), bending and undulating with the gently rocking ship, as Bansal’s neo-Bartokian score punctuated the refreshingly cool and breezy evening air. Hewlett, perched near the prow, assayed a solo, with Kinnear and Meyers executing faux swimming arms below, and another dancer ascending the rigging.
Again, no story could be discerned, although the heavy piano ostinato certainly augured doom. And it’s not as if water spectacles are uncommon: think any Esther Williams movie; Busby Berkeley’s 1933 musical, “Footlight Parade,” with its extravagant choreographic number, “By a Waterfall,” featuring Berkeley’s human liquid cascade, i.e., dozens of beautiful women romping through this aquatic ballet; and Cirque du Soleil’s “O,” the permanent Vegas show that premiered in 1998, features a cast of 85 acrobats, synchronized swimmers and divers performing in and above a 1.5 million-gallon pool.
Regardless, as night fell and a smattering of gulls soared overhead, Duckler’s dancers continued to traverse the ship’s ropes and deck, at times giving somewhat of a trapeze-like feel to their sea-faring kinetics, including balancing poses, arabesques and writhings. But even with opera glasses (which were available for purchase, along with other Duckler merchandise), this viewer could not conflate the beautiful singing with the action, the saga ultimately a blur.
But there is a solution—a costly one, for sure‚—and that is to incorporate live video feeds into the drama with hand-held cameras, the imagery then projected behind the ships and on any number of the 26 combined square sails (unfurled). As Duckler has called this iteration Act I, with the full creation taking place in 2018, this would help bring the audience, on this occasion nearly 300 people seated on land and gazing up and out at the ships, into the story.
With L.A. Opera as a collaborator—and that company having mounted several seaworthy productions itself, including Britten’s “Billy Budd,” Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” and Jake Heggie’s adaptation of “Moby Dick”—the possibilities for Duckler’s “Waterfront” to expand and succeed absolutely do exist. In the interim, however, Scene IV, “Hysteria,” featured the dancers in a literal struggle (“Snorting through the angry spray…”), as it surged towards a conclusion.
Accompanied by the ambient sounds of fireworks in the distance, and Bansal’s score having grown ever more angsty, dissonant and upsettingly clamorous, the work’s final moments, Scene V, “Echoes,” had two Sirens humming and, according to the program, one ascending, leaving the dancers in various states of repose on their ship.
A brief silence ensued, leaving conflicting feelings in its wake, meaning one cannot help but be in awe of Duckler’s vision and her ability to actually execute—imagining the red tape and complexities involved in staging such a seaside performance is mind-boggling—while at the same time one longs to be transported and filled with emotion as only high art can manage to do.
Hopefully, this will be the case next year, when the work’s fully realized presentation unspools. Until then, ahoy, and onward, Captain Duckler!