Choreographer Heidi Duckler, in her ongoing tour of dance-making at little-known and under-appreciated historic corners of Los Angeles, has turned her keen eyes for movement and architecture to the Barlow Respiratory Hospital. The Barlow was built in 1902 in Elysian Park as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.
This latest site-specific, dance-theater journey is called Catch Your Breath. The audience is led on a jaunty 80-minute tour of the hospital's sylvan pathways, charming wood and stucco cottages, and spectacular library, finishing inside a meeting hall with majestic wooden beams.
So lovely was this all-wood room that I was more than a little nervous (and distracted) as Duckler Dance Theatre volunteers passed lighted candles to everyone for a final, synchronized blow out. I am relieved to report there was no conflagration on opening night Thursday. (Performances continue through Sunday.)
Catch Your Breath, however, is not just a dance, but also a commercial for the Barlow, and that side of it gave me an itchy case of the heebie-jeebies.
The Barlow may very well deserve such tender artistic treatment. Its website notes that it is the only not-for-profit hospital to provide long-term acute care in Southern California. It clearly has an acute need of its own for rebuilding, with some of the cottages rotting on their foundations. And, indeed, construction will begin next year on a new 56-bed hospital, and the preservation of the site's significant structures. The fundraising goal is $106 million.
Which brings me back to my jitters. Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre walks the razor's edge of advocacy in nearly every piece. But Catch Your Breath -- with its humorless lecture on how the lungs work and the session on how to take deep, relaxing breaths -- felt out of balance.
The company of eight dancers, two musicians and one actor portrayed patients, doctors and, in one of my favorite parts, a set of lungs. It's not as far-fetched as you might imagine, given that expansion and contraction are natural parts of contemporary dancing. Extravagant and loud breath exchanges were prominently featured. There was a great deal of gulping, panting, exaggerated exhalation, blowing and wheezing. In the library, a trio was devoted to a silly scene of grave distress brought on by hiccupping.
A high point was a complex and athletic trio, accompanied by William Roper on the tuba, at the staircase where doctors once used to judge their patients' progress; imagine a stress test before the invention of treadmill. In the final hypnotic scene, the dancers performed with rippling lyricism between white sheets, their forms moving from clearly distinguishable to suggestive shadows.
And that was what proved irksome about Catch Your Breath. It was all spelled out -- from why you should care, to how you should breath. I'll take my dance with a little more ambiguity and a little less public-service-announcement shtick.
Catch Your Breath, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, Barlow Respiratory Hospital, 2000 Stadium Way, Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Oct. 26-28; 9 p.m. Oct. 26-27. $25. www.heididuckler.org