Founded in 1985 by choreographer Heidi Duckler, the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre (HDDT) has created thought-provoking and constantly evolving dance experiences, engaging audiences through artistry in non-traditional locations. A unique model of how a dance company supports and influences their LA-based dancers, HDDT’s approach elevates pop culture dance to a new artistic level. The strategic choreography works across large-scale concerts, commercials, and community projects.
HDDT dancers Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo, Ryan Walker Page, Jillian Meyers, Danny Dolan and Haylee Nichele have worked with top artists including Dua Lipa, Perfume Genius, M83, Kesha, Arcade Fire, Janet Jackson, Rufus Wainwright, Passion Pit, Florence and the Machine and Tovlo. Performing in venues like parks, laundromats, and gardens, the interactive dance company employs location, sound, and backdrop to connect audiences and artists and to address topical social issues.
HDDT reaches out to underserved audiences with location-based performances, offers educational programs that introduce movement to young audiences, encourages arts audiences to discover new places, and uses dance to communicate issues like climate change, water shortage, and gender equality. Heidi Duckler has created more than 300 dance pieces worldwide.
In this one on one interview, Heidi Duckler reveals insights about herself and her innovative theater company.
Why did you choose dance choreography as your passion?
Heidi Duckler: I’m a choreographer as opposed to a dancer. I graduated from UCLA with a degree in choreography in the early 80s and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I really love putting bodies in motion and connecting them to architecture and landscapes. I’m the eldest of five and I was always choreographing my siblings, living the dream of bossing everyone around (laughs). And making order out of chaos.
What inspired you to create the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre?
HD: It’s kind of an unusual company because I don’t have a studio and I create everything on site. I’m just very inspired by real-life and how it connects with art.
All those unusual locations and sounds. Why did you decide to move dance in that direction?
HD: It’s so inspiring to work in situations that are unpredictable. The locations provide a background of real-life urban settings. They also give people access to an experience they may never have encountered before. I find that very exciting.
What was your most challenging dance routine?
HD: They all have their own challenges. Sometimes we work in a business environment that’s open to the public. We’re very well known for our performance in the Laundromat. People were actually welcomed to do their laundry while we rehearsed on site. So that can be fun but also challenging. One time, we did a show in a Laundromat, and a gentleman who insisted on doing his laundry during the show became one of the characters in the piece.
How do you support and influence your dancers?
HD: We’re a non-profit organization, so we’re always working to raise money to pay our artists and make our work visible. We’ve been around for 32 years so we must be doing something right.
How do you use location, sound, and backdrop to address topical social issues like climate change, water shortage, and gender equality?
HD: I think it has to do with equity of access, so that everyone in the community from all walks of life, whether it’s the property owner or a community, can enjoy the performance. They can use it as a vehicle to talk about what’s current and relevant in our world. We built a 15-foot steel fish and we’ve taken it to national and state parks to talk about climate change and our ecology.
What inspired the laundromat dance routine and what social message was it designed to address?
HD: As a woman, I’m very interested in places that are frequented by women. In the beginning, women did their laundry by the river. Laundromats are often used by people who can’t afford a washer/dryer and are typically in places where people don’t often see the theater. So it’s important to bring art to the street.
Do you often collaborate with video artists?
HD: We do. We collaborate with all kinds of artists—composers, writers, scientists. Our work is very interdisciplinary. We even collaborated with some rangers in the mountains. We also did a dance for a telenovela.
What’s the most far-flung foreign country you’ve performed in?
HD: We recently went to Cuba. They have an international, site-specific festival there. We were the first Americans to perform there. The people were so wonderful and kind to us. We brought our videographer with us and we made a little movie.
How do you begin the process? Do you start with a social message, venue or dance style?
HD: That’s a good question. It can be any one of those things. Sometimes we have a commission where they’ll ask us to create something in an unusual venue. Other times, we’ll have an idea and we’ll look for the “skin” to put it in. I recently choreographed a piece based on a short story, so it can have a literary anchor.
What are the least amount of dancers and the most dancers you’ve ever choreographed?
HD: The least would be a solo. And the most is where we take the audience through a building. Audiences love that. But it takes a lot of dancers, musicians, and projections. That could take a cast of 30 or so people. Sometimes we break up the audience, where one group goes one way and another goes a different way.
What are you choreographing now in terms of unusual routine and venue?
HD: Good question. I’m not sure how to answer that. I’m working with the L.A. opera and hopefully, that will be something beautiful.
Why did you choose an L.A. freeway as the venue for “La La Land”?
HD: That was one of our dancers, Jillian Meyers who was the assistant choreographer on that movie. Freeways are part of the L.A. scene.
HDDT dancer Jillian Meyers trained in all styles of dance. She also performs and choreographs in film and television including “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (2016) and “La La Land” (2016). She answered a few questions about her role in “La La Land.”
What was it like rehearsing for “La La Land’s” opening sequence?
Jillian Meyers: That opening sequence was the most challenging number in the entire film and my career. Besides dancing in the film, I was also an assistant choreographer to Mandy Moore. We spent months working out the routine’s pure logistics before working out tracks for each dancer in relation to the camera and the layout of cars. There were many elements we had to account for, including the small window of time we had for each take. The hardest part for me was not only being responsible for my own personal track but knowing what roughly everyone else’s tracks were, as well as to help facilitate when needed.
Were there several “takes” to get what you wanted?
J.M: We wanted it to look and feel as though we did it all in one take. But it took far more than that. We shot the opening sequence during two of the hottest days of the year. And each sequence had to be filmed in a window of light during a specific part of the day—to ensure we got the best take. The “dance’ between performers and camera was very specific and, thankfully, everyone involved in the opening sequence, in every department, was a consummate professional. That not only made the dance routine possible but contributed to its success.