Choreographer Heidi Duckler isn’t content simply to make works for a stage. To her, the whole of Los Angeles, the whole of the world, even, is fit for dancing. Why leap across a theater floor when you can glide around the lobby of an office building? Why spin atop sprung wood when you can frolic in a laundromat?
Duckler, 60, has been bringing her unique dance-as-urban-exploration to the world for 28 years as director of the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre. Staging productions in places as disparate as Los Angeles City Hall, the Van Nuys bus terminal and on an elevated glass bridge in Hong Kong, her works have challenged audiences to reconsider the spaces they inhabit daily.
“The vision, even though it’s expanded, hasn’t really changed,” Duckler said recently by phone, of her nearly three decades with her company. “It’s very adaptable and flexible. There’s always something fresh.”
Although Duckler’s earlier pieces were often what she described as “non-heroic works” that took place “in laundromats and gas stations,” she was always committed to the idea of using the outside world as art. And so, when she was approached by the Long Beach Arts Council to craft a piece in one of the open spaces in that city, she jumped at the chance. “They were looking for art to animate the land ... to create a sense of hope,” Duckler recalled of the call that would lead to the birth of her “Expulsion” series.
Duckler, who enjoys working with locals when she creates a site-specific project, brought on the Khmer Arts Academy as her collaborator. Duckler’s previous project had been about Eve, and so she decided to weave the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden with the Cambodian exodus story and create a whole new work about exile. It’s a theme that she has reinvented with Native Americans in Portland, Ore., and will rework again on March 16, with the Latino community in Boyle Heights.
“Expulsion” is performed on a large piece of scaffolding, a form that has remained a constant throughout all the incarnation. Much of the rest of the piece changes, however, depending upon the context. “I sort of see that scaffolding as the bones, the body, the framework,” said Duckler, who notes that the current version of the piece contains new twists. “The expulsion story from the Mexican-American community is really different. ... It was an immigration story, but now it’s an emigration story — they’re being sent back.”
In “Expulsion,” dancers move around, over, through and on top of the large piece of scaffolding that is the central element of the piece. They interact with the metal, hanging off of it, spinning around it, at times almost like gymnasts upon an apparatus. For the March 16 performance, the scaffolding will be located at 101 S. Boyle Ave., in the heart of Boyle Heights.
Duckler’s dancers will be joined there by members of the Danza Floricanto/USA company, which practices traditional Mexican folk dance. And although Duckler’s dancers are familiar with “Expulsion,” the dancers from Danza Floricanto/USA will be invited to “develop their own gestures” and bring their own unique flair to the project.
“It takes a different kind of dancer. It takes a dancer that’s willing to take a risk, and willing to be malleable,” Duckler said. “You’re in somebody else’s environment, and you have to be respectful, and there has to be a level of trust.”
Not surprisingly, locals often wander by during performances and have at times been puzzled, or even worried, by some of Duckler’s work. Some have even been concerned about the safety of the dancers. “Oh my God, they could fall off that roof,” Duckler said, miming the reactions of some bystanders, “but they never do. It’s very carefully planned, and safety is a key issue.”
Duckler recalled that the dance company was commissioned to do a piece in a downtown hotel right after 9/11. At first, hotel security staff members were very jumpy, but later they settled in and learned to appreciate the dancers. “We make friends as we go,” Duckler said. “One of the challenges for us is always to maintain those connections.”
Though Duckler has gained increasing access to sites where she’s wanted to choreograph — usually by being invited by cities or various arts groups that arrange for the use of sites — there’s still one white whale that eludes her: “As a lover of L.A. and a longtime resident, I would love to choreograph a piece that was seen via the freeway,” she said, laughing. “My most favorite site is near the Silver Lake exit off the 101,” she said. Despite the obvious hurdles of staging a performance where it might snarl traffic or cause accidents among rubbernecking motorists, a choreographer can always dream.
After the Boyle Heights performance, Duckler said she would love to hit the road. The company recently bought an old Oasis trailer, “a canned ham,” as Duckler describes it, and it plans to take it on tour. “The trailer is sort of like a tool box, or a treasure chest, that can be explored by other people,” Duckler said. She’s already working on choreographing a piece that takes place in and around the trailer.
“We’re taking it for a test drive,” said Duckler, who’s set her sights on the horizon, never content to choreograph in one location for too long. “We can travel California and see where it leads!”