Heidi Duckler is considered the “reigning queen” of Site-Specific Dance, a performance medium that takes place in unique urban places, both historic and modern, and brings audiences “into the city” to observe the familiar in unfamiliar ways. TPR caught up with Ms. Duckler for an artist’s perspective on movement in the built environment, urban planning as modern dance, and COVID-19’s impacts on performance art in Los Angeles.
Elaborate for our readers on your background and why should planners, architects, and design professionals care about modern dance?
Urban planning is modern dance in the sense that planners and architects create environments in which people are intended to move. How we experience the spaces around us – and that includes both our physical and social environments – is what planners address every day. It is also what we, as performance artists, seek to observe and explore. In that sense, we all dance, everywhere we go, every step we take.
Heidi Duckler Dance is a 35-year-old collaboration of choreographers, dancers, musicians, set and lighting designers and other creative individuals, who find special places in the built environment, and create public performances to investigate and explain the world around us. Our best-known work has been in Laundromats, for example, and pedigreed spots like the rotunda of Los Angeles City Hall, but we have also performed in the LA River and on the firing range of the Police Academy.
We have a special interest in urban change, for example dancing in the Ambassador Hotel before it was demolished and in vanishing landmarks like Perino’s restaurant. Some of our work is overseas, in a Soviet Cultural center near Moscow, in a shopping mall in Hong Kong and recently in Chile, just as civil unrest engulfed the streets.
But Los Angeles is our home. A major focus of our work recently has been around the notion of “spatial equity,” something that should concern all of us, not just your readers. As a result, many of our engagements are in “under-represented” communities. For example, we are Artists in Residence at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook and conduct extensive programs with the Inglewood and Los Angeles public school districts.
Oh, and one other thing: we like to collaborate with local talent. For example, we recruited Dave’s Accordion School for a piece in Atwater, and have worked with gospel choirs, Gabrielino Native Americans, and off-duty cops. Watch out, David Abel, we may tap you next.
How do you collaborate with architects, designers, and other real estate types?
We love to collaborate with these professionals because, as noted earlier, we are really in the same field of work. We are pursuing the same goals: to appreciate and improve the built environment. We have set a number of performances in historic spaces, such as the Subway Terminal Building, just as they were being repositioned for adaptive use. We have also helped ‘open’ new buildings such as Thom Mayne’s Exposition Park school. We work closely with building owners, architects and developers to bring sophisticated audiences to these places, which serves to promote good real estate development. We inspire “buzz.”
What have you learned about Los Angeles through your work?
I ascribe to the theory that Los Angeles is not so much a place as it is a “bundle of energy.” It is a metropolis “of, by and for” mobility. That would include cultural and social mobility as well as just prosaic driving around. As such, dance – and don’t we all dance sometimes ? – is an essential part.
I like to move our company around the region to bring audiences to places in their own city that they do not know. I like the surprise. Often, we hear, “I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life and didn’t know this place (be it a park, museum, historic structure or just a dive bar) exists.”
I truly believe that Los Angeles, for all its messy vitality and monumental urban challenges, is without question the greatest collection of human talent in the history of the world. And that talent runs deep, not just in our celebrity artists, but among the kids at Saint Mary’s Academy and in the Antelope Valley’s Sun Village, where we teach.
So, what have I learned? That this community is still a “work in process.” That diversity is truly our greatest strength. That there is beauty almost everywhere, and meaning even where beauty is not. And that to be alive is to dance.
And how has the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on physical movement affected your work?
The pandemic has impacted us significantly, as you can imagine. We were literally placing lights to open a major show under the Seventh Street Bridge in the Arts District downtown, when the health crisis shut us down.
The pandemic has been very hard on all live entertainment. My primary concerns were to keep our company together, and to keep providing some income to our artists and collaborators, upon whom we depend, and who depend on us. Then, I began to see opportunities to explore what a pandemic means in terms of urban space and mobility. After all, “social distancing” has been a part of dance all along. Just think back to high school!
The pandemic has also allowed us to investigate new media, particularly film and video. I still marvel that we were able to choreograph a dozen dancers, all at remote locations and often in their own bedrooms, and use Zoom to synthesize them into a unified ensemble performance with overdubbed sound and special effects that we could not create live. Dancers performed perfect duets while dancing alone, miles apart.
We started to create a new body of work last summer, on film. As a result, Heidi Duckler Dance is being shown by festivals in places like Romania, Poland and Italy, where we likely never could have performed live, certainly not all at the same time. The relationships between in-person experience, film and memory are being recast into a whole new subset of artistic curiosity.
Los Angeles, it was sometimes said, is a city without a history. Maybe the “filmed interlude” of 2020 to 2021 will help change that.
Lastly, how might (performing) artists lead LA’s recovery from COVID’s shelter-in-place impacts on urban life ?
Duckler: Social isolation has inspired an acute awareness of the arts, and an acute need for even more art. Think of Netflix binge-watching, or the books you’ve read in the past year. Art is a salve; it’s a way of grounding ourselves in our shared cultural background, especially during our forced separation. In other words, art is the “glue” that holds us together until we can meet up again. Movement, the one form of art that is most restricted right now, needs to be cultivated to maintain our social “muscle memory.”
We could not attempt site-specific dance without the inspiring urban spaces around us, some of them carefully planned and beautifully crafted and others, well, call them “accidental.” The community of fine architects in Los Angeles is globally known. So is our leadership in “lifestyle arts “ such as food, fashion and film. There is actually a noble tradition of modern dance here, including names you may know like Lester Horton, Ruth St. Denis and Bella Lewitsky. Creative professionals should – and do – support each other.