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Dancing All Over Town with Heidi Duckler

The reigning goddess of Southern California site-specific dance, the indefatigable Heidi Duckler, began her terpsichorean journey in 1985 in Los Angeles. Originally dubbed Collage Dance Theatre, the troupe, now Heidi Duckler Dance (HDD), began its storied history in, well, a laundromat. That work, “Laundromatinee,” originally staged in 1988 in Santa Monica’s Thrifty Wash Laundromat, featured dancers performing amid washing machines, dryers and a bevy of onlookers, intentional or not.

Heidi Duckler Dance at Bendix Building. Photograph by Mark Lord

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Flash forward to 2006, and Duckler had remounted the piece in Manhattan, with the New York Times’ Jennifer Dunning describing the work of love, lint and loss as, “funny, occasionally dark and strangely poignant.” For Duckler, who recently turned 70 and is a devoted grandmother of two, “Laundromatinee,” is one of some 500 site-specific works in a repertory that has taken her all over the world.

Indeed, a pioneer in the field that includes luminaries such as Meredith Monk, Joanna Haigood and the erstwhile team of Eiko & Koma, Duckler has forayed to, among other countries, Russia, Cuba, Australia and Hong Kong, where the troupe performed, “Longing,” inside a glass enclosed bridge in 2007. Redefining the discipline and through her use of expanded techniques and a methodology that encourages us to understand how dance, born from a collective experience, can be a tool for awareness, Duckler has rarely met a site she doesn’t like. And none more so than those found in the streets, hills and edifices—off the beaten track and otherwise—of Los Angeles.

Heidi Duckler. Photograph by Rob Daly

To list them all would fill a tome to rival the OED, but one book, Heidi Duckler Dance: 2016-2021, a visual compendium of the company’s works from those years and was created in collaboration with artist James Robie, will be feted at a launch party on January 14 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA). Also on tap that day, HDD dancer Edgar Aguirre will be moving to the sounds of composer/multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia.

And speaking of locations, Duckler, who was born in Portland, OR, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Dance from the University of Oregon, also has a satellite troupe, Heidi Duckler Dance/Northwest, founded 12 years ago. (She was also the recipient of the 2021 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship.) But, after decamping for Los Angeles, where she earned a master’s of fine arts in choreography from UCLA, Duckler found her adopted hometown to be a kind of real estate nirvana, where her credo, much the same as an agent’s mantra, became “location, location, location.”

As such, this writer admits to having attended many of Duckler’s wildly popular performances over the years. Included was Duckler’s memorable 2003 opus, “Sleeping with the Ambassador,” where spectators were guided through Hollywood’s historic Ambassador Hotel (the site of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination, the resort was demolished in 2005 and is currently home to the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools), with dancers making their ways through various memorable spots, including the decaying empty swimming pool and the famed Coconut Grove nightclub.

“C'Opera” choreographed by Heidi Duckler at Los Angeles Police Academy. Photograph by Paul Antico

And who else but Duckler could mount, “C’opera,” a 2006 work set at the Los Angeles Police Academy. Established in 1932, the site had audiences meandering through the venue’s gymnasium, rock garden and, yes, firing range. City Hall also became home to Duckler’s “Governing Bodies,” a 2010 work that made use of break dancers, hula dancers, live musicians and notions about public space and social equality.

Directing short films has also been added to Duckler’s CV, more so during Covid, with “Inhabit the Dream” having been created with her Portland company and named an official selection of the IndieFEST Film Awards in 2022. And speaking of festivals, HDD has staged its share, with “Ebb & Flow,” a celebration of local artists, having taken place from 2018 through 2022 in neighborhoods from Chinatown to Culver City.

But it’s not as if Duckler, whose honors include the Distinguished Dance Alumna award from the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, and the Dance/USA and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Engaging Dance Audiences award, has completely shied away from traditional venues.

“My Beowulf,” from the maker’s Beowulf Series (2005-2007), unfolded at Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts (REDCAT), and knitted together the ancient and the modern in her telling of the myth. But, Duckler being Duckler, she couldn’t resist producing another iteration at an ice rink in Van Nuys, CA, as well as at a storefront in Hollywood, the latter dubbed, “Beowulf on the Couch.”

I caught up with the eternally industrious Duckler by phone from her office in the 1929 Bendix Building. Located in the L.A. arts and fashion district, the historic structure is also home to art galleries and studios, with HDD often hosting salons and performances from its 11th floor rooftop digs. (“Truth or Consequences,” a curated series of transdisciplinary salons is scheduled for January 29.) We chatted about a range of topics, from her company’s history and what she looks for in a site—as well as a dancer—and her educational endeavors, to the possibility—however remote—of retirement.

20th anniversary performance of Collage Dance Theatre's "Laundromatinee," choreographed by Heidi Duckler. Photograph by Vivian Babuts

I have to start with longevity. What’s your secret in holding a dance company together for some 37 years?

I think the secret is being flexible, like every good dancer should know. I’m always adapting, as we’ve all learned during Covid, and that’s the key to longevity. I’m blessed to be, in the end, a site-specific company and that’s inherent for us. It’s part of our DNA.

What do you remember about your first performance, one that continues to resonate today?

“Laundromatinee” catapulted us and it was great to do that piece on so many different levels. It was right after my master’s at UCLA, around 1987, and that piece went on for a few years. I got an NEA American Masterpiece Award, and there’s a funny thing about that.

There were stories that people who usually give those awards to famous choreographers were sitting around the room saying, “Do we dare give this to someone who choreographed in a laundromat?” And somebody said, “Why not!”

I got to take that piece to different places and teach it to different students. It was wonderful and it taught me so much. In a laundromat, there are people who don’t have washers and dryers in their homes. And it appealed to a different kind of audience. It also opened up our company to different kinds of audiences and communities where people weren’t privy to the arts. It was a new trajectory that propelled us into the world we exist in today. It was long ago, but is still very prescient - and present.

Like “Laundromatinee,” re-visiting works has been fertile ground for you. With “Parts and Labor,” performed in 1993, 2015 and 2016, you explored our love/hate relationship with cars in various locales, including a car wash, with a 1970s Cadillac Coupe de Ville serving as a stage, a prop and as a musical instrument. “FishEyes,” from 2016-2018, was performed at an aquarium and the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

There have been many along the road and some come back to revisit you. I remember we did the Herald Examiner Building in 2002 [“Cover Stories”]. That was 20 years ago, and when I did my show there, they had the old printing presses. They’re all gone now, as [are] much of the contents.

Now the building’s been restored and remodeled and they have a zócalo [plaza] there. What a great usage it is to also have Arizona State University. It’s full of students that could be interesting to incorporate. But the news is very different today, the way it’s disseminated. We’re in the process of performing there again, and it’s in the early stage. It would be interesting to revisit that place and see what happens.

What do you look for in a dancer—and there’ve obviously been many through the decades?

A lot of different things, and sometimes they’re difficult things to find. The dancer I like to work with is collaborative. A lot of trust is involved. It’s relationship building and it’s a lot like a marriage—it has its ups and downs. There is a sort of learning and strength building and a lot of character development. You build narratives, because there’s a story, and it all comes down to the project.

You have to be invested in the work and the project itself, and you have to let a lot of things go. Maybe they’re not relevant, but you can file them away. You have to be invested in those key kernels, the gems you’re unearthing together, with what you’re trying to say at the moment.

I look for an intelligent dancer, but also someone who’s physically open and responsive and available and present. All the dancers I work with are very trained, but when you’re in the rehearsal process, you let that experience take care of itself. And you have to be confident.

Picking dancers is so much a part of every project—finding the right person to embody that character, that role—everyone’s going to be different at that job. That’s a huge effort and a commitment and responsibility. That’s one of the biggest things and that’s why I don’t have a repertory company. I might love working with you, but this is a different thing. People that I love working with and I know what they’re capable of and the language that we share, that’s a big ask and it takes a lot of thought.

Heidi Ducker. Photograph by Denise Leitner

Over the years, your troupe has performed in venues ranging from the exotic to the mundane. In 2004, “The Hunger Artist” featured your dancers moving amid the chandeliers of Perino’s restaurant, which was demolished in 2005. In 2012, your company took over the 51st floor of the opulent former ARCO headquarters in “Cleopatra, CEO.” How do you get the powers that be—architects, landlords and the like—to say “yes” to you?

They’re always so afraid to say yes, but a lot of it is a matter of trust. If you act like an outsider, or if you are an outsider, trust happens because you have to explain how you care, and that you care about a place and the people who live there. Who will be there after you’re gone?

You have to start with that conversation and sometimes that conversation takes a while, because you care about the history, that you’re not there to destroy a place. You’re there to tend the garden. You’re not there to uproot a place, but maybe to examine it carefully.

You also have to take others on your journey with you. I think that’s key. Sometimes that’s where the learning comes. If it’s their place, they may know things you don’t, but they may enjoy finding out about, as well. It can be an ordinary, generic place. It doesn’t have to be refined. It can be abandoned. It can be any place. It’s, “What is it you’re trying to do, to say? What’s the intention you’re bringing to the place?”

And likewise, it’s a chicken and egg thing. What is the place bringing to you? What’s buried there? What can you find there? But it doesn’t matter where we are, because wherever we are, it’s the being there that matters and then we figure out what we do.

Sometimes, people who own those places, it might be hard for them to fathom why we would be turning it upside down. It’s like wearing your clothes inside out. They might ask, “What are you doing?” We’re getting a feel for things.

“Hildegard Project” at St John's Cathedral, Los Angeles, choreographed by Heidi Duckler. Photograph by Norman Reneau

Feelings decidedly run both ways! When you explored the life and work of Hildegard von Bingen in your 2019 “Hildegard Project,” staged at L.A.’s St. John’s Cathedral, I felt a sense of reverence that seemed to emanate from the dancers’ bodies. In “Dancing at Dunbar,” from 2014, you animated the historic Dunbar Hotel, which was built in 1928 and in its heyday had housed musical legends, including Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. History and memories permeated the building, which is now affordable housing. How, then, would you describe your relationships with architects and those kinds of buildings?

There are so many architects on my board and I love talking to them and collaborating with them, thinking like they think—about bodies moving through spaces and how that works. They are thinkers about space and buildings, the environment. I feel very close to that whole field.

I love working in buildings—all kinds of buildings and how the architects see and design them, but it’s even more than that. They’re so connected to the body. I created MAP—Movement, Architecture and Production, and we’ve been doing it for the last five years, twice a year. Three collaborators—an architect, a choreographer and a designer—teach on three different days to different students, who make their own work based on information they gather on those days. I love to see how they use the different senses—sound, touch—and move their bodies in interesting ways. It’s very experimental and it’s going to happen again in May.

How important was it for you to have your own space, especially in the Bendix Building, for the last five years?

It was a complete game-changer. I never thought it would be important to have our own space, because as a site-specific, nomadic company, why do I need my own space? I create work in everybody else’s space. But there’s nothing like having your own home and getting to know it, and re-configure it in a multitude of ways. I find it creatively engaging—to invite others into our space in ways that are profound, interesting, unique—to find things you haven’t thought of.

Our space is so multi-faceted. We have administrative offices, a rooftop space, interesting hallways, stairs and Santee Alley [in the fashion district] is interesting. Our whole community here is a combination of workers and artists, and it’s very unexplored and beautiful. I love being here. It’s been a wonderful experience bringing people here to explore, and I hope we can stay for a long time. It’s been really great for all kinds of reasons.

Since your work is rooted in democratic dance, arts education and spatial justice, can you speak to some of those issues.

I have a director of education and we work with LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District]. We have a longstanding relationship with St. Mary’s in Inglewood that’s gone on for five years, and students who were freshman have graduated. It’s so beautiful to see their development.

We have other programs, as well. I’ve been an artist-in-residence for the past five years at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital campus in Willowbrook, an unincorporated area of L.A. It’s been completely re-built. They opened a new mental health facility and there’s a foster care program that we do mentoring one on one that we’ll be expanding.

We also work with incarcerated individuals who come out of the prison system and are making their way back into a more normal life. We love teaching them. Shields for Families is a wonderful program for foster youth that’s really meaningful. We’re slowly growing those as we can, and we don’t expand too quickly, because they take a lot of nurturing and we don’t teach technique.

What advice do you have for aspiring choreographers?

It depends on what kinds of questions they ask. I think it’s more like always listening to who you are, because I think it’s so important to get to know yourself. That’s easier said than done and it takes experience. So, give yourself time to have the experience.

Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years and what about the ‘R’ word—retirement?

I don’t know. The future is so unstable that it’s always hard to predict and anything can happen. Nobody knows anything anymore, but I just hope I can keep learning and maintain the gentleness of behavior and the patience it requires to maintain and keep at it and plug in. And be sensitive, and at the same time, take risks. It’s hard to find a balance sometimes, but I’m eager to always try.

Also, I love problem solving. I get to the office sometimes and my staff says, “Should we tell her what the problem is today?” I just say, “Bring it on. Find the creative solution.”

So, no, I can’t imagine retiring. I don’t even know what that means. As a creator, you just keep creating because you’re so inspired. It’s what I do, and these dreams are part of my life.

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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