An abandoned jail complex. A cavernous subway duct. An empty newspaper building. The most memorable locations for Heidi Duckler's site-specific dance events have been those that made Los Angeles suddenly seem a ghost town haunted by impossibly grandiose fantasies.
In "Sleeping With the Ambassador," which opened Friday for a month run, Duckler's Collage Dance Theatre takes us to the Ambassador Hotel near Wilshire and Vermont, a symbol of limitless affluence closed for 14 years and now in an advanced, picturesque state of decay.
Weeds grow through the driveway that celebrities once used to reach its fabled Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Peeling paint and holes in the ceiling deface its palatial lobby. Rot is everywhere, and for nearly two hours we savor the erosion as if visiting ancient Pompeii.
Initially mock-nostalgic and then openly satiric, "Sleeping With the Ambassador" heightens the sense of imminent destruction in an environment designed to make beautiful people feel more beautiful and isolated from reality. "Long Ago and Far Away," sings Franny McCartney from the deep end of the pool, and the Collage collaborators carefully evoke and then discard the dream she sings about in one room after another.
Ill-served by muffled and sometimes piercing amplification, the text by Merridawn Duckler and score by Amy Knowles often try to lull and seduce us. Similarly, dancers gazing in wonder at the hotel facade, or clinging lovingly to the columns in a portico, pull us into the fantasies that the Ambassador once embodied.
But there's usually a sung, spoken or danced reminder of the hollow core of those fantasies, the mindless indulgence and narcissism of the glamour that flourished here. For instance, production designer Dan Evans transforms an arcade of shops into a sensual gantlet filled with such bizarre artifacts as beckoning, disembodied hands inside a jewelry showcase, or a woman undulating in foam chips as if they were a luxurious bubble bath.
Dancers rolling over the top and down onto the hood of a limo going nowhere, or racing through the Cocoanut Grove on increasingly frenzied and meaningless trajectories, become conduits to all the affairs and deals and self-deceptions consummated here.
There's also a pure-dance Grove divertissement, more Diavolo than Duckler, perhaps, in which the nightclub tables become rolling platforms that inspire high-speed tests of balance and sheer daring.
The most extended detour, however, involves treating the audience as extras on a film location, manipulated by actors posing as makeup and wardrobe specialists or coaches of various sorts. Disarming enough while it lasts, this interlude is supposed to link up with the critique of Hollywood illusion central to the piece, but it seems imposed on the site, something that belongs somewhere else.
Ultimately, the Ambassador Hotel speaks to a visitor about outmoded magnificence and shifting power in this recklessly unstable city. When Elizabeth Nairn and Chris Stanley dance a sad homage to it by the pool -- as if paying tribute to a dead god -- the imaginative power of site-specific dance lends the moment an authenticity it could not achieve in any theater.
As long as "Sleeping With the Ambassador" remains in tune with its musty, crumbling setting in this way, it skillfully evokes and critiques the kind of life that once reigned here. But there are sections in which Duckler and company seem to buy into the Ambassador fantasy a bit too indiscriminately -- as if they reopened the Cocoanut Grove simply to stage one more spectacle there and add their names to its roster of celebrities.
Ruins have their magic and it's easy to get lost in them. But that danger may be far greater for Collage Dance Theatre than for the audience on Wilshire near Vermont.
Collage Dance Theatre
Where: Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m.
Ends: June 15
Price: $20 (students, seniors) to $30
Contact: (323) 655-8587