Heidi Duckler, the director of Collage Dance Theater, is bounding up the steep concrete staircase in the rock garden of the Los Angeles Police Academy. A tiny woman, wearing what look like black suede slippers, she is in constant, fleeting motion. She’s trying to put herself into the place of an onlooker, a member of the audience who’ll be watching the dancers she is presently choreographing in a series of moves intended to invoke a suspect. The trouble is, the Academy’s rock garden winds and climbs and plunges through a forest of exotic plants and trees and it’s impossible to see the half-dozen dancers all at once — let alone grasp that a half-mad perp is lurching from rock to rock. The audience will have to make the ascent, then the descent, passing each performer, to see this passage unfold. “It’s a garden, so it’s made to be discovered,” Duckler says. “Just like the dancers, we want the audience to look at the space and find their own meaning in it.”
There is something provisional — as in, undecided — hiding in this comment, which feels mildly out of place at a rehearsal just four days before the opening night of C’opera (at the Los Angeles Police Revolver and Athletic Club through Feb. 19). Billed as a walk through the historic Police Academy, the name itself conveys ambiguity. Is it pronounced “cop-er-a,” as in cops? Or is it pronounced “co-opera,” as in Verdi? The venue itself usually provokes unalloyed responses. You either salute or you cringe. On the garden path, you’re not sure where you’re standing, nor where Duckler is taking you. Duckler isn’t exactly positive herself, and she’s got just three rehearsals to go.
Still, among the cast-concrete rocks and a cascading waterfall, she likes what she’s seeing. The dancers, like artful contortionists, are handcuffing themselves, applying half nelsons, wrestling themselves to the ground. Her lone LAPD dancer, Sara Faden, a media-relations officer who’s been on the force for 10 years, is balanced on a promontory, knifing her legs out from her torso, turning, twisting, folding in half, origami-style. A monotone voice projecting from a boom box repeatedly says, “This is the police. We need you to identify the suspect from artist’s renderings. Suspect may have been a child .?.?. able to expand and contract .?.?. gothic, rococo, lateral, horizontal, trapezoidal .?.?. guilty .?.?. innocent .?.?.”
Faden is a powerful woman, with direct, green eyes. Relaxing her pose, she says she is trying to embody “a composite drawing of a suspect as seen through the eyes of a witness. I am interpreting that as big movement. Suspects, in real life, move. They are on the go. They don’t like to be seen. They don’t like to be caught.”
The rock garden is beginning to seem like an ideal place to play out this scenario of bodies trying to take on the vague, and invariably unreliable, descriptions of an eyewitness, while an actor dressed in camouflage fatigues brandishes a remarkably lifelike .45 semiautomatic replica pistol. “The rock garden is an enigma,” Duckler says. “What is this tropical paradise doing next door to a firing range?” Suddenly, you experience the physical sensation of a suspect as someone always elusive, out of sync, and placeless. A true fugitive.
At some point in devising the dance, Duckler decided she needed a wedding. She put the ceremony in the firing range — rather than the rock garden, where marriages are frequently performed. The show ends, in tragedy, in that forlorn, forbidding space, made of black rubber, asphalt, gravel, steel and concrete. A bride wilts as she learns her groom has been killed in the line of duty. It isn’t clear if the rock-garden perp is responsible, or if that matters. What matters is that death resonates on that sepulchral ground, littered with genuine shell casings. “It’s quite a comment on marriage,” Duckler chuckles before getting the dancers to run through the processional for a third time, as bagpipes tune up to play “Danny Boy.”
By now, the sky on this peculiarly hot February day has gone from blue to gray to black. The Academy is empty, and, apart from Faden, there is no LAPD presence.
“Who’ll be here for the performances?”
Duckler answers, “Fans.”
“We’ve offered them a discount.”
“And the brass?”
“Supposedly, Chief Bratton.”
Duckler smiles, her eyes dart, and the look gives her away: How many cops go to the opera?