Heidi Duckler's site-specific performance events for her Collage Dance Theatre invariably transform distinctive locations into fantasy environments. An abandoned jail suddenly teems with ghosts of prisoners past, for instance, or the rituals of service in a busy hotel unexpectedly change into artifacts of a culture obsessed with entertainment values.
But somehow the magic doesn't happen in "Cover Story," staged Saturday in the old Herald Examiner building downtown. Or, rather, the ghosts, rituals and artifacts of this 1914 newspaper palace don't seem to suit Duckler's agenda. Despite an array of energetic dancing, atmospheric music, pulsating video imagery and clever texts (spoken and displayed as headlines), there's a sense that "Cover Story" just isn't site-specific enough.
The performance begins in the palatial lobby, replete with rich wood, gleaming gold leaf, dramatic wrought-iron, polished tile, intricate marble reliefs, ornate chandeliers, double staircases and bizarre heraldic shields emblazoned with quills and printing presses.
Before we can inspect all the faces carved into the walls, down the stairs tap-dance John Kloss and Bob Carroll wearing "Q" and "A" sweatshirts, and soon Victoria Burnett appears in the guise of an African griot, or storyteller.
"We gotta know," she sings, reminding us that our expulsion from Eden resulted from Eve's curiosity about matters that were none of her business. "She was no different from the rest of us," Burnett says, "she did want to know."
A surge of Collage dancers through the lobby leads the audience down the hall to the "Story Department," a room full of desks, phones, computers and a dozen reporters performing gesture-based choreography with a growing sense of frenzy.
Soon Ellen Byars runs screaming through the room, fights erupt in the aisles, Kerry McGrath is literally buried in paperwork--but the only story under investigation is which audience member forgot to turn off a cell phone.
By the time the audience hurries through the bowels of the building toward the pressroom, the cell phone incident has become major news, with Burnett as a glossy TV reporter interviewing everyone about the possibility of a conspiracy or cover-up.
Duckler provides plenty of diversions en route--unlikely medical emergencies in the hospital area, Jessie La Bohn numbly repeating "I've got mail" while tapping at a computer keyboard with no screen. But by now it's clear that any building might serve as a backdrop for these activities. This particular site no longer seems to belong to Duckler's concept.
Dark and cavernous, the pressroom boasts a long, low catwalk and a high overhead platform that can move the length of the room--areas briefly used in a sequence involving the pursuit of a fleeing voyeur (Paris Wages). Mostly, however, Duckler adapts the space into something resembling a standard "black box" studio theater. And that's a mistake.
The vignettes performed here by dancers on couches make provocative points about how we watch everything in our lives as if we're viewing some TV reality program. But, apart from Wages' odyssey and a gymnastic catwalk solo by Chris Stanley, the same sequence could be performed at Highways or the Electric Lodge with no loss of impact. It's a performance imposed on this space, not something integral to it.
There's an untold story in this building, a story about William Randolph Hearst and the concept of information as an empire, about the gulf between the pretentious overkill of his lobby and the overwhelming smell and sound of his presses below.
"Cover Story" features typically skillful contributions from choreographer/director Duckler, writer Terry Wolverton, composer Amy Knoles, video artist Douglas Thompson and many others. But, sooner or later, you come to feel that they moved into the Herald Examiner building with all their ideas in place and never let the site's creepy contrasts in style and scale inform the result.
"Someday we'll know how this story ends," sings Burnett in her final transformation as a media celebrity. Maybe so, but there's a better story in this unforgettable environment that the very watchable but conceptually displaced "Cover Story" never covers.
Collage Dance Theatre continues in "Cover Story" through May 19 at the Herald Examiner building, 1111 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. Saturdays, 7 and 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 5 and 7:30 p.m. $15 (students, seniors) to $25. (323) 655-8587.