The first time I saw site-specific dance was in a park in New York City’s Chinatown. While dancers climbed on tables and scaled fences, older local men who looked to spend much of the day in the park continued to read newspapers, staying still while the dancers moved around them.
I remember wondering, how do these men feel as we, the audience members and the dancers, share their space? Did they see us as intruders? Did the choreographer want the audience members to think about the relationships between the local men and the dancers?
It is hard to know unless a choreographer facilitates dialogue, and thankfully, Heidi Duckler does just that.
By bringing dance into public spaces, site-specific choreographer Duckler also succeeds in bringing social issues out into the open. Duckler is based in Los Angeles and leads the Heidi Duckler Dance Theater (DHHT), a company she has fostered since 1985.
In her work, Duckler inserts dancers into public spaces from washing machines in a laundromat to Los Angeles City Hall. The audience is a critical part of the experiences and Duckler works to engage audience members in dialogues about art, civic engagement, and social issues.
In one of her most recent pieces, Expulsion, Duckler brought together ideas of migration and displacement to examine the theme of “home” (you can check out the Project Profile dedicated to the performance on Animating Democracy.org for more information).
As part of the A LOT series, sponsored by the Arts Council for Long Beach, Duckler looked for material for Expulsion by soliciting stories from community members. Each piece is performed in a vacant lot in Southern California.
In 2011, Duckler choreographed her second piece in the Expulsion series, this time picking a lot in Glendale. In this piece, dancers from HDDT and the Iranian-Armenian Djanbazian Dance Company performed to begin a conversation about the fragility of “home” and what it means to be forced out of “home.”
After each performance, Duckler hosts a symposium where audience members can discuss reactions concerning themes of home, urban planning, civic participation, and art. In these “curbside conversations” DHHT artists, leaders from the community, guest scholars, and the general public have the opportunity to engage in dialogue.
Duckler invites the audience to experience spaces in new ways all the while keeping the history of the place ever present.