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Casting Ideas Upon the Waters

Choreographer Heidi Duckler, whose latest work is 'Liquid Assets' at California Plaza, lets instinct be her guide.

September 20, 1998|Kristin Hohenadel | Kristin Hohenadel is an occasional contributor to Calendar

On a recent afternoon downtown at California Plaza, as the stock market plunges and the temperature soars, local businesspeople and tourists sip cappuccinos in the sunlight--their eyes on the upper reaches of the three-level fountain, where a group splashes around in suit jackets draped over their bathing suits. The water is littered with abandoned computer keyboards and telephones, beaten-up office desks and brightly colored swivel chairs.

"Two minutes!" shouts a woman in bike shorts, standing knee-deep in the fountain. "Hurry! Come on! Come on! Come on!" Two minutes, that is, until the thrice-hourly 10,000-gallon deluge that floods the California Plaza Watercourt Fountain, the site of choreographer Heidi Duckler's upcoming piece, "Liquid Assets," which will be premiered here Friday and Saturday.

All of L.A.'s a stage for choreographer Duckler. A kind of self-taught urban anthropologist, she turns her site explorations into cutting-edge dance theater that has taken her audiences to a Laundromat in Santa Monica, a gas station in the Valley, a patch of the Los Angeles River, a high school locker room in Culver City and the old Lincoln Heights jail. Highly collaborative, she uses dancers, actors, singers and musicians to incorporate movement, visual text projections and music into her work. While some choreographers periodically take their dances into non-theater environments, Duckler claims to be the only one making dances from the sites themselves.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 23, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 9 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Dance performances--The two performances by Heidi Duckler's Collage Dance Theatre at the Watercourt Fountain, in California Plaza, Friday and Saturday, are free. The listing published Sunday incorrectly gave a ticket price. Performances of "Liquid Assets" both nights are at 8 p.m.
Information: (818) 784-8669.

"No one quite understands why we're doing what we're doing," says Duckler, 45, a fair-haired mother of three who lives in Sherman Oaks with her real estate developer husband. "[They ask], 'Why are you doing this?' And I think it's a good question, actually," she says, laughing her high-pitched laugh. "I don't know, except that I know how. I've always just sort of jumped into things, I'm kind of impulsive, I'm very hands-on, I'm not a theorist. I hate to talk in generalities, but it seems like a lot of artists prefer a certain distance, really want control of what's going on, and that's not possible in this work. A lot of it is the unknown, the unexpected, and you have to be ready for that."

A Portland, Ore., native who moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to get her master's degree in dance from UCLA, Duckler claims that her work--which she often describes as "intuitive" and "organic"--began as an exploration of the city she now calls home.

Earlier, at UCLA, she became "very interested in the visual arts, the whole Rauschenberg era of found objects and how to incorporate those into works of art. I started to do that with my own work, and the work became about real life. It seemed like a natural progression to take the work into a real place."

In 1985, Duckler founded Collage Dance Theatre, and in 1987 produced the first in her series of "urban extinction" works--"Laundromatinee"--at the Thrifty Wash in Santa Monica. Since then, she has developed a small but loyal local following.

Last summer's "Most Wanted," which hauled audience members by sheriff's van into jail, won the choreographer local recognition in the form of several Lester Horton Dance Awards.

"I was so touched because I've always been kind of on the periphery of the dance world," she says. "They'd always go, 'Oh well, you know Heidi's doing something outrageous, but is it dance?' "

"There's something uniquely L.A. about the pop culture sensibility of the work," says B.J. Krivanek, a visual artist based in Chicago and Los Angeles, who often collaborates with Duckler. (For "Liquid Assets," he has designed low-tech black-and-white projections of business terms culled from the Wall Street Journal such as "common stock," "defined interest" and "key losers/winners.") "L.A. is still kind of a frontier town, there's not such an ossified cultural structure as New York or Chicago. There's a certain freedom she takes advantage of. It took her a long time to gain acceptance in the dance community in L.A., but it was more likely to happen in L.A. than in New York."

A pilgrimage to California Plaza, nestled between monolithic high-rises on South Grand Avenue, might be achieved by car. Or by taking the Metro to Pershing Square, walking across the street, and riding the world's shortest incorporated railroad, Angel's Flight, to the top of the hill.

"Liquid Assets" is a commission of Grand Performances, the nonprofit organization in charge of programming for the outdoor space. Collage Dance Theatre isn't the first dance company to use the site, but, says Grand Performances' artistic director, Michael Alexander, "Others have dealt with the space from an architectural point of view--I don't think any have been as interested in dealing with the cultural context of the space, with what it means to be in the center of a large financial district."

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