Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre (HDDT), was formerly Collage Dance Theatre. CDT was founded in 1987 by Artistic Director and Choreographer Heidi Duckler. The company’s early works, designed for the stage, dealt with contemporary culture and its artifacts: hairdryers, fast food, used cars, and the like. Duckler's first site-specific work was Laundromatinee, performed at the Thriftywash Laundromat in Santa Monica, California. In 1989, Ancient Terrain, a multi-generational piece with a cast ranging in age from 8 to 80, was performed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and incorporated video shot at Vasquez Rocks.
Over the next few years, Duckler experimented with combining new elements with movement and site. Church of Food incorporated odor: in a church with a stove as set, performers cooked and ate as they danced. Foundations, commissioned by Loyola Marymount University in 1991, took place in the University’s fountain, foreshadowing the L.A. River’s Mother Ditch four years later. Cattle Calls, a “spaghetti western,” used phones in place of guns and had video monitor campfires. For Parts and Labor, Duckler danced on an amplified Cadillac while musicians drummed on the hood.
1993’s Out of Circulation marked the company’s first approach to incorporating audience as character. Audience members checked in at the library site’s Information Desk and were guided to their areas of “research.” Duckler returned to the stage that year with Eye to Eye at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles. But she didn’t let the proscenium limit her exploration of environment. Commissioning Architect Scott Johnson to create a moveable structure, she invited three dance companies to join the company in responding to the constructed “environment.”
Continuing to incorporate a variety of art disciplines and seeking unusual venues such as an empty swimming pool and a baseball diamond, the company began to extend the idea of public art by inviting a variety of community groups and individuals to take part in Mother Ditch in 1995. Set in a section of the L.A. River bordered by the Atwater community, Mother Ditch had a cast that included members of Dave’s Accordion School in Atwater, the local Harley-Davidson club, indigenous Gabrileno Indians, a gospel choir, and a “guy up the street with a dune buggy.” The performance made eloquent use of the river’s concrete “entombment,” as well as the various flotsam that polluted the waters at that time—rusted bedsprings became the dancers’ floor.
Duckler continued to seek venues that provided new challenges. With the award-winning Most Wanted, set in the Lincoln Heights Jail, Duckler made use of the total environment, including security areas, hallways, and jail cells. The audience was fingerprinted, photographed, and, at one point, “locked up” in a holding cell as the performance examined the idea of imprisonment on different levels.
Over the years, the company's repel grew in scale to include sophisticated technology, video images, commissioned text, sets, and music. At the same time, the company accepted commissions to create more intimate works such as Mr. Westinghouse, with refrigerator and cello soloist, for private parties and small venues. In numerous residencies, Duckler created works with student groups, such as 13 Curses and a Blessing at Pomona College and Locker Rumors at Van Nuys Valley College.
In 1998, the company was commissioned by Grand Performances and Arts Partners to create a work for the California Plaza's series of outdoor performances. Shunning the space’s proscenium, Duckler instead plunged her dancers into the Plaza fountain’s 10,000 tons of water to create Liquid Assets, which implicitly transformed the surrounding corporate structures into looming, silent characters, and included a musical chairs sequence within the fountain’s spray.
Still buoyed by the expanded space possibilities presented by the Lincoln Heights Jail, Duckler began to search out other abandoned buildings that might offer multiple sites within one performance. In 2000, she had the opportunity to perform in Los Angeles’ historic Subway Terminal Building. She used the space as a metaphor for the human body, the vehicle for our journey through life. SubVersions incorporated video, text, and original music.
In 2000, Duckler was awarded a commission from Dancing in the Streets to create a work in Miami. After an extended research period, during which Duckler created All You Can Eat in a Brazilian cafeteria with students from the Florida Dance Festival, she settled on the Morris Lapidus-designed Eden Roc Hotel as her performance site. Using many of the techniques she developed over the years—audience moving through the full range of the structure’s spaces, community volunteer performers, incorporation of video, text, and original music—Duckler and the company came up with UnderEden, an exploration of the hotel as a point of transience and transformation. A year later, the piece was reconfigured as AfterEden for Los Angeles’ Downtown Marriott Hotel.
In 2002, Cover Story, was created for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner Building, and the following year Sleeping With the Ambassador enlived the famous, iconice Ambassador Hotel – both projects expanded the definition of “site-specific.” Responding to the buildings’ histories, as well as their current use as filming sites, these works took inspiration from the particular architectural details in order to create specific moods within the performance. Cover Story reflected the media’s impact on a society always hungering to know more while Sleeping With the Ambassador stepped outside the Hollywood dream for an oblique and surreal perspective.
Since then, Heidi Duckler and her collaborators have continued to create innovative works that draw, not only on architecture, but also on the histories of distinct communities inhabiting Los Angeles County. In 2005, the company took residence in Boyle Heights to create The Entire World is a Narrow Bridge. Working in a former synagogue for 8 weeks, Duckler directed an exchange between traditional Mariachi musicians and contemporary composer Bob Een – along with her company of dancers, they created a multi-disciplinary work that reflected the strong Jewish and Latino heritage of the neighborhood.
Bridging often disparate communities became an impetus for creating the company's next major work. C’opera became a complex and poetic work involving an opera singer, a bagpipe musician, video projections, and police officers dancing alongside Duckler's professional company dancers at the Los Angeles Police Academy. This work, which brought L.A. art audiences inside the training gym, and directly onto the firing range of the L.A.P.D., was highly praised by audiences and the media.
In 2007, Duckler, in collaboration with her sister writer Merridawn Duckler decided to use the theater space as the site for the first full-length installment of My Beowulf, a modern retelling of the ancient myth. The story of Beowulf, coming from an oral tradition strongly tied to community, memory and identity, always meant to engage the whole community. My Beowulf extends this sense of community engagement to its contemporary audience by involving the audience in unexpected ways.
Always at the forefront of the field of site-specific performance, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre has grown over the years toward national and international recognition, receiving commissions in New York, Copenhagen, Las Vegas, Portland, Hong Kong, and most recently Russia.