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by Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

I use my body every day, walking, yoga and gyrotonic Pilates are central to my self-care. Because I use all elements of being; heart, mind and body in my work, my practice as a choreographer, is also central to my well-being. The capacity to imagine and dream what is possible is good for the spirit and the trajectory of inherent questions I seek to answer in my work. Intellectual curiosity is critical for me, I must be intellectually inspired daily. Reading is imperative, I draw my inspiration for my choreography not only from what I’m seeing and hearing from community, but also by what I’m reading.

a part of our interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Duckler.

Heidi Duckler is the Founder/Artistic Director of Heidi Duckler Dance. Since its inception in 1985, she has choreographed more than 200 original dance works at unique sites in Australia, Germany, Russia, Hong Kong, Montreal, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, and throughout Southern California. Titled “the reigning queen of site-specific performance,” by the L.A. Times. She earned a BS in Dance from the University of Oregon and an MA in Choreography from UCLA.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

hen I was younger, I had meningitis and thus began my exploration of the brain and spinal cord. The fragility and resilience of the body has been a constant companion throughout my life. It’s no surprise that as a dancer I’ve tried every possible movement imaginable to the body. Perhaps this is my own internal test of what I can overcome and to deeply understand the limits a body can endure. After I got my master’s degree from UCLA, I wanted to create a dance company that was anywhere except a dance studio,” the locations; chosen for their cultural, architectural, or historic significance.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

When I received an American Masterpiece award for Laundromatinee, I decided to tour the work to NYC and found a laundromat in Lower Manhattan. It was a very small laundromat, but we arrived, rehearsed and the owner was accommodating. As we completed our work, I smiled and reminded her we would be back for the performances the next day. She looked at me and was adamant, “one time, that was it, all done, good bye”. I was in disbelief at the miscommunication and tried my best to explain. An audience would be arriving, the piece had positive publicity in the NY Times and Village Voice and a crowd was expected. She repeated her words and locked the door.

I called the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) not knowing what to do. They suggested I get in touch with Lawyers for the Arts and I did. A woman referred to me who was not only familiar with my work, but she spoke Mandarin and was willing to meet the owner. The next morning, we met at the laundromat and she asked me to wait outside. For hours they were shouting in Mandarin and I, of course had no idea what was being said, until she came to the curb and said to me “ go to the ATM and withdraw $200 and the show can go on”. I was so grateful for a past that was previously unknown, and now grateful for a champion that made negotiations in the strangest situation that proved to have a profound effect on my future.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my first commissions was an evening at the John Anson Ford Theatre. I had the idea of asking an architect to create a mobile piece that could be reconfigured by different choreographers in the space and I selected three inventive choreographers. Famed dancer and choreographer Oguri wanted to set the piece on fire and I decided that was really not feasible so he had to bow out.

Meanwhile, we all worked very hard to build what the architect had envisioned — even our board -was on the stage with drills and saws — and we wove and bent the fine plywood into the sculptural forms. It was a gorgeous set and could act as a moveable wall, it could fly from the sky or arrange as a series of platforms on the floor. We worked hard to fill the 800-seat house (which we did) and when everything was over, the producer said, “okay, this set needs to be gone by tomorrow”. What! I hadn’t thought of that! With all of the love and planning we never thought about what to do with this. No one could store it. We were weeping the next day as we lugged it piece by piece to the dumpsters. And I thought maybe Oguri should have had his fire moment after all!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

For the past thirty-five years I have led a company that values civic engagement and recognizes emotional sincerity. The essence of the company is democratic dance, arts education and spatial justice. My choreography and movement are revealed in the landscape and community responses in which it is created, and it both triggers memory and embodies current conditions.

I have been an artist in residence investigating multiple communities. I have been engaged at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital campus in South Los Angeles for the past three years, learning from populations that need healing, including those in foster care, in recuperative care, students at King Drew Magnet High School and seniors in affordable housing in Willowbrook.

Recently, I directed three online salons focused on reimagining the legendary California myth of Ramona through the eyes of Native American women. I have been in conversation with Native scholars and artists about self-determination, cultural sovereignty, and land ownership, examining how these ideas disrupt “this quintessential California story.”

I have directed two films that have inspired me to create a way “in”, evoking magical narratives that are formed when the bodies interface with architecture through spatial justice. These democratic dances can reveal civic memory and provide access to audiences that are denied entry in to historical spaces closed to the public.

Because of the intersection between architecture and dance, I continue to be inspired by architects. Dance and architecture are two disciplines of creativity that share a special relationship. Both disciplines define and use space as the main medium for creative interpretation. Dance is movement of the human body through space over time. Architecture and its spatial qualities are experienced by the human body through movement over time. One of my current projects is “A Living Archive: Re-memory of Paul Revere Williams in a Series of Sites.” Williams, was the first African American architect to be admitted to the American Institute of Architects, he was instrumental in helping to shape Los Angeles.

I recently created a film at Founders Church in Koreatown, a building designed by Williams. I based this work on my reading of Susan Sontag’s “Illness is a Metaphor,” and connected this concept to the architecture. “Everyone holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well, and in the kingdom of the sick.” (Susan Sontag)

The Paul R. Williams Project is ongoing, next will be the activation of the hundred year- old Wilfandel Club, a historic site currently closed to the public. Building on history, testimony and close readings that speak to William’s architecture, the neighborhood of West Adams, and the anachronistic purpose of women’s clubs today, I will explore the meaning of spatial justice as it relates to movement, memory and site-specific choreography.

In Los Angeles in the 1920’s, The Wilfandel Club was one of the largest women’s clubs (specifically for African-American women) in the nation. As women pushed through “glass ceilings” women’s clubs sought to find new purpose. I would like to explore this idea of “re-purpose”. If a building is created for a purpose, does this dictate by whom this space should be used?

When we leave the isolation of our homes and reenter the post pandemic world, I will reengage the ideas and tools of Anna Halprin’s “awareness walks,” and adapt this strategy to create movement for the vulnerable body, reflect on sealed civic space and explore our ability to evolve and adapt. We live in a world of diminishing public space, with smaller spheres for authentic connection. What narratives have become embedded within the architecture? Following organic links between current conditions and cultural memory, the Wilfandel Club will act as a site of spatial justice through my choreography and film.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Yes, Madonna came to one of my performances, but truly my interactions with community, dancers, musicians, filmmakers and architects have all been the most interesting of people to connect with. Recently my interactions with the women at the California Institute of Women in Chino, the women at the Downtown Los Angeles Women’s Center, the community of South LA where my company has been in residency at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, the doctors, nurses, patients and the foster youth; all these interactions have been profound and intentional.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

  • Maintain your confidence and honor your intellectual currency.
  • Collaborate with your team, you’re not always running solo.
  • Honor and tend your gift as an artist, not everyone gets to have a creative outlet, I’m blessed that I do.
  • Easier said than done, but be diligent about work-life balance. When you’re burnt out, you are not any good to your craft or your community.

You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

Don’t do it if you have that feeling.

Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

I use my body every day, walking, yoga and gyrotonic Pilates are central to my self-care. Because I use all elements of being; heart, mind and body in my work, my practice as a choreographer, is also central to my well-being. The capacity to imagine and dream what is possible is good for the spirit and the trajectory of inherent questions I seek to answer in my work. Intellectual curiosity is critical for me, I must be intellectually inspired daily. Reading is imperative, I draw my inspiration for my choreography not only from what I’m seeing and hearing from community, but also by what I’m reading.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • Speak up
  • Always room at the table
  • Listen (you can always learn)
  • Trust your gut (intuition) because it’s connected to your brain
  • Silence is not a bad thing; you need time to think

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was told it was Faulkner who said “that when you light a match in the darkness it is not to see anything better lit, but to notice how much more darkness there is around you.”

My site — specific, place — based practice employs a methodology that encourages understanding about how dance, born from our experience, can be a tool for expanded awareness. In the spirit of spatial equity, I invite my fellow humans to reconsider the spaces we live in, the spaces we take up, and use, to communicate personal experiences to others, to speak up, to inspire, to incorporate hard truths into the vulnerable body and pursue a search for empathetic connectivity.

The world today is experiencing a spatial awakening. This is more than marking us six feet apart. The political climate and the raging fires have given our people a deep desire to want to breathe, because they can’t.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people I am grateful for, but I’d have to say my feminist husband Dan Rosenfeld who respected and understood my passion and commitment for dance. We are really in the same field of work. We are pursuing the same goals: to appreciate and improve the built environment. As an urban producer, Dan is committed to the historical underpinnings of great architecture, he believes that developers create a choreography of experiences. The motion of people through space is the deepest distillation of what a developer provides. This is what I do with dance.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our city is so privatized, you need to invite people to share your space, in sharing space there is always room for each other. Make room, it’s up to us to make room, making jobs, there is a responsibility we have. Carving space is not making room.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Private breakfast or lunch? That’s a tough question. If I were to be honest, the only person I’d like to have a breakfast with is my grandson Kodiak, because he represents the future and reminds me how fun it is to be alive.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!