Architecture and Dancers Lighten Up in Heidi Duckler’s “Space Opera”

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre has spent 30 years staging contemporary dance performances in intriguing spaces, from Laundromats and gas stations to corporate offices and, now, the offices of Thom Mayne’s Morphosis.

But while the choreography played with the locations, none confronted the makers of the space as directly as "Space Opera."

The result is a piece, says Bennett Stein, that has some fun with architects at the same time as it elevates the space.

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Dancers treat Morphosis’ facade as canvas and climbing frame. Top row from left: Joe Schenk, Nick Heitzeberg; bottom row, from left: Princess Mecca Romero, Zoe Nelson, Roberto Lambaren. Photo: Bennett Stein

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre has spent 30 years (yes, it just celebrated that birthday) staging contemporary dance performances in intriguing spaces, from Laundromats and gas stations to corporate offices and, most recently, the Culver City headquarters of architect Thom Mayne’s Morphosis, with the troupe’s latest, entitled “Space Opera.”

But while the choreography in past works has played with the locations, none confronted the makers of the space as directly as Space Opera. The dance was developed by Duckler and her troupe of six dancers at Morphosis during working hours, which, being an architects’ office, typically went late into the night. So they got to witness the designers at work.

The result is a piece that has some fun with architects at the same time as it elevates the space (whoever thought a flat, white drafting table could be so erotic?).

Bennett Stein, aka The Good4Nothing Connoisseur, saw the opening performance Sunday and calls it “the punk rockingest dance performance ever by the ever so cheeky Heidi Duckler.”

Read his review below.

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Dancers have fun with the tools of the architecture trade in Morphosis’ office; clockwise from back left: Joe Schenk, Princess Mecca Romero, Zoë Nelson. Photo by Derek Wear.

Having grown up in New York City and studied in Boston and the Bay Area, and spent time in London and Paris, I’d always seen the most avant-garde dance happenings on offer: Twyla, Merce, Pina, Alvin Ailey, Lubovitch, Millepied, Mr. Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, ABT, Pilobolus, Bolshoi’s “Nutcracker” – you name it.

I’d also rumbled around with dancers now and again; my point being, the dance scene always struck me as way too darn serious. I always found dancers had a massive chip on their shoulders that said “take me seriously, dude or NOT—at your peril, for what I do is vitally important and should be taken utterly seriously.”

I tended to think of dancers and dance outfits as quaintly snobby, if not terminally self-satisfied and myopic. Though I always did love to watch the vigor and strength and youthful God-like perfection of a dancer at work–I’d put it right up there with watching a fireman rescue a little baby from the fifth floor of a burning Brownstone as he doused the flames with his hose before driving off.

But what I had never witnessed before unfolded before my eyes Sunday night: dancers having fun. I saw six dancers — three dudes, three women — carry on like a bunch of sociopathic punk rockers all over the open-plan offices of Morphosis.

Joe Schenck hanging over grid
Nick Heitzeberg hangs from the frame of the building. Photo: Bennett Stein

They started by literally lounging and dangling off the exterior facade of the building. I’m talking about a 40-foot-high grid of steel cross beams, a veritable matrix of sharp, metallic swoops and jabs, from which the dancers were scarily plunging off, swinging around and hanging upside-down with the loucheness of one enjoying a smoke in a great big double bed—except at a 90-degree angle to the cement ground. Periodically, the dancers would erupt into faux fights and chases, causing the audience to dread they were about to lose their grip and plunge to an early death.

This exterior sequence, accompanied by a peripatetic man spewing tasty, rhythmic phrases from a tenor saxophone, commenced with a theatrical narrative conceit in the form of a well-dressed man and woman, like fashionable architects, going over blueprints, gesturing to the metal grid. All of a sudden they ditched the blue prints in a bush and scampered up the structure, slipping all the while, clawing and lunging up into the guts of the giant metal construct.

Once up in the bowels of the giant tic-tac-toe façade of Morphosis’s metallica, they were joined by two other nattily-attired couples where they embarked upon all manner of bickering and tantrums with body language-only curse gestures. This part was simply stunning. Picture a dance performance on the sheer vertical cliff face of Half Dome next to El Capitan at Yosemite. I thought at one perilous moment, can’t they have safety harnesses? I don’t care to witness an attractive woman in a mauve skirt suit dying in front of me just now.

Every few minutes an Expo Line train would pass, adding an extra layer to the dance. Photo: Frances Anderton
Every few minutes an Expo Line train would pass, adding an extra layer to the dance. Photo: Frances Anderton

And every few minutes a train on the elevated Expo Light Rail whooshed by directly above and behind the dancers on the metal grid — which lent the dance vignettes a distinct whiff of the Marcello Mastroani/Ursula Andress sci-fi flick, “The 10th Victim” (a high concept ‘Hunger Games’ riff hatched by Marxist intelligentsia from 1960s Rome.)

But fifteen minutes later these six brave, or nutsville, dancers had descended back down to the concrete, retrieved the blue prints from the bush and walked off as if from a fruitless 9AM Monday staff meeting, business as usual.

Then the audience of about 50-75 people were escorted inside, to stand behind a glass wall and peer into a large open space with rows of flat workstations at which dancers were positioned, going to town with T-squares and measuring tapes, half of them on the phone, gesticulating.

One lady dancer threw pencils at a man dancer, who gamefully grabbed one and held it theatrically like it was stabbed into his eye. Another worker stuck Post-Its on his forehead. Yup, just another average work-a-day at Morphosis. It was so lovely to see – I laughed like an idiot.

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Dancer Nicholas Heitzeberg has fun with post-it notes. Photo: Derek Wear

Yes, suddenly Duckler’s dancers were satirizing the 9AM to midnight architect regimen. The audience – which contained quite a few designers and dancers — chuckled nervously.

Next thing I knew the six dancers were all over the work station desks, computers, drawing tables, in and out boxes, rolling, throwing each other over everything; one dancer pretended another dancer was an architectural model, facially mugging, is this model right? Is it accurate? Shall I bend it, reshape it, trash it and start over? As one of the dancers, Joe Schenk, told me afterwards, the impetus for the choreography was: “Can I sculpt you with this blueprint?”

Then in another sudden switch, one of the man dancer-tects started to interview one of the lady dancer-tects with a handheld microphone like a news anchor. Asking her things like “How do you feel wearing a power suit in the work place?” Then asking whether she deploys “nonverbal visual cues, or loud red” and “how do you deal with distractions in the work place?” I never saw dancers talk before. Suddenly they were really good, really funny actors, and the avant-garde dance riff turned into a site-specific bit of theatre. Delish.

And I tell you, it was howlingly funny. But now I really worried the architects in the audience, who as WE ALL KNOW are the most deadly serious group of tradesfolk, in fact I would argue they well exceed dancers in the professions that take themselves way too seriously—I worried they would all be mortally offended.

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Nicholas Heitzeberg and Princess Mecca Romero “dance perilously” on the edge of the mezzanine; photo: Derek Wear

Then suddenly, we, the audience, were escorted to the back of the open floor plan main room of Morphosis, whereupon a dancing couple all in yellow started dancing perilously on the edge of a very high up mezzanine. These two simply hurled each other around, and draped themselves over the edge, transforming themselves into human waterfalls, spilling over the lip of doom. I never saw humans turned into water before—hey isn’t that one of the meanings of “morphosis?” Never mind.

Then these two would caress each other tenderly like lovers, cupping each other’s heads, but suddenly each was a murderer, or undertaker, disposing of, or embalming, the other’s body. It was all so moving. It all happened so fast I could barely still my heart or even make sense of the unfolding pantomime. What if this was an elaborate murder scheme posing as art happening? What would I tell the homicide detective? My heart was pounding.

Then there was an intermission. After that we were lead into an area with a gigantic table made of a steel beam topped by a massive slab of wood that looked as if it had been cut from a redwood tree. There was an electric bass player, a full-on drummer, a floutist/harpist, and a woman in a suit with a giant baritone saxophone. This ensemble was bringing the serious jazz funk.

The table becomes a stage. Photo: Derek Wear
The table becomes a stage. Photo: Lauren Ann Donia

Suddenly the well-dressed three dancer-tect couples were under the giant redwood table using their hands as puppets on top of the table’s surface. It was whimsical and sinister—I never saw twelve hands dancing before all in a row on the same plane, to the beat. And before you knew their whole bodies were all over this table. I kept thinking, wow, how come we, the audience, weren’t made to sign an NDA? I mean what if Thom Mayne found out this borderline insane vandalism was happening all over his work premises? Then I remembered that Mayne is kind of a punk rocker himself and had already signed off on this anarchy.

Before you knew it, all six dancers were on top of the giant table thrashing, river-dancing, mocking, sticking their tongues out, stage-diving, and leaping into each other’s arms. I never saw dancers look like a bunch of St. Vitus mosh pit penitents before. It was completely cathartic and let me tell you, this jazz funk ensemble kept upping the ante with their funk beats and bullet-metal, punk, jazz groove. They tried to hide the subversion behind a sweetly plucked harp, but who’s fooled by that?

Thank you Heidi Duckler, and your dancer-tects and musicians, for turning the very proper and sculpturally sumptuous offices of Morphosis into CBGBs West for a night of completely therapeutic steam-blowing off and architect-mocking.

Pssst, I won’t tell the grown-ups, if you won’t. Happy 30th Anniversary HDDT!!

“Space Opera” will be performed Sunday March 22, at 2:00 and 5:00PM. More details, here.

Dancers practice at night; photo: Mae Koo
Dancers practice at night; photo: Mae Koo