Choreographer Heidi Duckler drove around Boyle Heights one day, in search of her next project and "feeling that my heart was in this community." Suddenly, she saw a building with a striking dome and "I just knew it had to be a synagogue," she recalls.
Sure enough, Duckler had stumbled upon a community center called the Casa del Mexicano, a former synagogue from 1914 until 1930, when it became the property of the Mexican Consulate.
"This building has been used for so many things," she says. "It's a survivor that adapts to its community."
Called "the reigning queen of site-specific dance performance" by the Los Angeles Times, Duckler brought her dancers to the Casa del Mexicano and began to develop "The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge." The latest project by Duckler's Collage Dance Theatre and titled after the talmudic adage, the dance, which premieres in early October, explores the unique history of Boyle Heights, while addressing the more universal issues of immigration and demographic shifts in communities.
With more than 40 works in her 20-year-old company's repertory, Duckler has been a prominent choreographic force in Los Angeles, which according to the city's Cultural Affairs Department, houses more than 100 nonprofit dance companies. And while certainly smaller than what's found in New York, the L.A. modern dance scene continues to grow. On a fairly regular basis, both local and visiting choreographers show their work at venues like Highways, Electric Lodge or at the cutting edge Redcat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Upcoming performances range from the fifth annual SOLA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance Nov. 4-7 to the acclaimed Montreal-based modern troupe, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, at Royce Hall Oct. 7-8.
Opportunities to view Jewish-themed dance by contemporary choreographers, however, do not occur every day and, in the case of Duckler, "Narrow Bridge" represents the first time she has explored issues of Jewish identity.
"The idea behind this piece is that often, when there's a constant flow of immigration, no one remembers the history of who came here first and how did they arrive there," she says over coffee at a Brentwood cafe. "Also, it's a tribute to Boyle Heights, which I find so colorful. There's the Hispanic community and remnants of this Jewish community, and if you talk to the old timers who live there they all remember things differently."
Though Duckler interviewed longtime Boyle Heights denizens, including residents of a nursing home and consulted various books, old maps and Jewish scholars, she could not find further clues to Casa's history.
"We know that the building was originally supposed to be a church but no one knows how it became a synagogue," she says. "It's a real mystery."
Performed earlier this summer as a work-in-progress, "Narrow Bridge" featured dancers who are initially dressed like Chasidim as they leap over each other's backs, roll on the floor and perform the more classic gestures of Jewish prayer, like beating the chest and swaying while standing. Later, they add colorful Mexican belts that punctuated their dark outfits and they pay more attention to the rope bridge in the center of the room. Three dancers hurl themselves over to one side of the bridge. One dancer lingers behind. Another dancer hangs upside down from the bridge. Meanwhile, a dignified couple in traditional Mexican costume start to waltz.
The dance also features music by Robert Een that is performed by a Mariachi band and draws upon both Latin and klezmer influences, while the audience is encouraged to participate in a responsive reading. Duckler's still not sure where the audience will sit.
"We haven't finished exploring the building," she says. "What's key to the process is that the dancers come into the space and they start to get physical with it. I tell them to leap off the stage, test the strength of the balcony. The movement comes from integrating into the environment of the space."
Duckler, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and did plenty of ballet as a child, eschewed the idea of a conventional dance career early on.
"Dance was my medium but I couldn't relate to a lot of it," she says of her college experiences as a student at Reed College and the University of Oregon. "I wasn't into looking at myself in the mirror or performing in little black box theaters. That seemed so confining."
Interested in pop culture and the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Duckler, who received a masters in dance from UCLA, knew she wanted to create the type of dance that forged a connection with the outside world. Her first work, "Laundromatinee," took place at a Santa Monica Laundromat and dancers spun in dryers and dove into washing machines as they explored the plight of the housewife. The venues of her ensuing works have ranged from the Los Angeles River to an automotive repair shop to the Ambassador Hotel.
"My work is never about just lyrical abstraction," Duckler says. "I'm always looking at a greater story, whether it's psychological, cultural or political."
Duckler maintains "it's serendipitous" that she's presently dealing with Jewish themes. Yet, "I've already explored my other identities, such as being a wife or artist," she observes. "I guess it was time to deal with the Jewish one."
Collage Dance Theatre performs "The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge" Oct. 7-9 and 20-23 at the Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights. Fri. and Sat. 7 and 9 p.m.; and Sun. at 7 p.m. Special benefit on Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$40. For information, visit www.collagedancetheatre.org.