Nobody takes Shakespeare quite as literally as Heidi Duckler when it comes to treating all the world as a stage. The innovative choreographer and artistic/executive director of the Heidi Duckler Dance Theater looks at every space, no matter how mundane, with an eye for its potential as a theatrical backdrop. Since she launched her company in 1985, Duckler has activated laundromats and parking lots, subway terminals and police training facilities with her distinctive brand of site-specific choreography.
This weekend, Duckler’s dancers are finding their sea legs as they venture off land entirely. In collaboration with L.A. Opera and AltaSea, the company is producing Beyond the Waterfront, a dance opera that will be staged aboard the Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s two elegant tall ships –– the Irving Johnson and the Exy Johnson. The twin 110-foot vessels will be anchored in a channel in the Port of Los Angeles off the coast of San Pedro. Weather permitting, a few of the ships’ combined 28 square sails will be unfurled, acting as screens for projections. Some 500 audience members will view the action from AltaSea’s long wharf just 75 to 100 feet from where the ships are anchored.
Standing on the wooden deck of the Irving Johnson and looking up into the ship’s complex rigging system is like looking up into the wings of an outdoor stage. The heavy canvas sails unfold like curtains. Hundreds of lines of ropes dangle from above like a theater’s backstage fly system. There are hatches in the floor of the deck that lead to secret compartments. A ship, like a theater, has its own vocabulary for front and back, left and right.
A few weeks before she began rehearsals for the piece, Duckler’s active creative imagination was overflowing with ideas for how to activate these outdoor floating stages. In addition to climbing high aloft the ships’ rigging systems, she envisions her dancers utilizing the hatches in the floor to disappear below deck and reappear on the other side of the ship.
“The captain has been so supportive,” Duckler says. “We can steer the ship and we might even use a small dinghy to move dancers between boats during the performance. The Coast Guard will be on the ship with us, too, which I’m very excited about because they will inevitably become part of the scene, like extras. This will definitely be the first time I’ve choreographed for the Coast Guard!”
Los Angeles–based composer Juhi Bansal is providing the music for Beyond the Waterfront. Her music includes a variety of prerecorded and sampled sounds –– strings and a piano, as well as bird songs and whale calls whose pitches have been manipulated electronically.
“There are so many ambient sounds at the wharf,” the composer explains. “There are seagulls and people and the sounds of the water and the waves, which will all blend into an integral whole along with the prerecorded music coming out of the speakers and what the singers are doing live aboard the ships. For instance, you’ll hear on the track a line that is a prerecorded bird call. Then the singers will mirror that call back in their melodies.”
L.A. Opera is providing the three singers for the production. “We are always looking for opportunities to collaborate with interesting projects and people,” says Christopher Koelsch, the opera company’s president and CEO. “[This] is another way for us to weave opera into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.”
The variety of cultural organizations involved in this project only makes it richer. The Los Angeles Maritime Institute typically uses the Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson as educational tools, taking groups of schoolkids from L.A. Unified and neighboring school districts out on the ships for day- and even weeklong trips. Captain Bruce Heyman says the nonprofit takes more than 4,000 children and young adults out into the waters of the Pacific each year.
Like everyone else in the organization, Heyman is passionate about the organization’s educational mission: “The byproduct of learning how to sail or how to steer a course is that these kids learn self-confidence,” he says. “They work with each other and gain leadership skills. They learn that they can feel confident about things that once scared them, like climbing aloft the rigging.”
Captain Heyman is excited about transforming his ships into a stage. He notes, “These dancers can do things aloft the rigging that the kids and our crew never would.”
AltaSea executive director Jenny Krusoe also is excited by the opportunity for her science-driven organization to dip its toes into more artistic waters. She says that AltaSea is all about innovation and creativity: “We’re redeveloping a 35-acre peninsula at the Port of Los Angeles, which is really the southern tip of our city. Our mission is to solve the world’s most pressing problems –– food, energy and climate security –– and explore the 95 percent of the ocean that we don’t really know much about what the heck is there. You have to think outside the box to fulfill that mission. By bringing together Heidi’s company and L.A. Opera and AltaSea and the tall ships, we are really calling attention to the fact that innovation is all about creativity.”
It was actually Krusoe, a longtime supporter and friend of Duckler’s, who initially imagined the collaboration.
“Jenny Krusoe contacted me about these tall ships and the vision sort of started with her,” Duckler recalls. “She’s seen so much of my work and had this idea that I might want to do something on the ships. She said, ‘Heidi, is this a crazy idea?’ Well, I’m one to welcome crazy ideas, so I told her that yes, it is possibly crazy, but that won’t prevent us from pursuing it.”
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The idea for the title of the abstract work was actually inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s score for the 1954 crime drama On the Waterfront. The connection is a loose one, but Duckler wanted to join the many arts organizations around the country that will be celebrating what would have been the iconic composer’s 100th birthday in 2018. Ultimately, she says, the piece is more abstract than narrative –– the singer’s texts comes from a 19th-century James Russell Lowell poem called The Sirens –– but composer Bansal says that she did have Bernstein’s eclectic compositional style in mind when she developed the score for Beyond the Waterfront.
This Saturday night’s performance is just the beginning for this project. Duckler says she is thinking of it as a 30- to 40-minute “Act I,” and is hoping to continue to work with this diverse group of contributors to imagine a larger-scale, more fully fleshed-out version of Beyond the Waterfront in the summer of 2018.
“What an opportunity to learn something new and use it in a different way,” Duckler says of the experience of learning how to climb the ship’s rigging with her dancers. “To be rehearsing and performing and all the while breathing in that beautiful sea air is so exciting. And San Pedro is such a wonderful place. I’m finding it a very inspiring place to be with that expansive bridge, the old historic district and the wharf. I’m just so excited about having people come there because of this piece.”
Beyond the Waterfront, AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles, 2456 Signal St., San Pedro; Sat., June 24, 8 p.m.; $50. heididuckler.org/beyond-the-waterfront.