Dance, Identity and Deforestation: Heidi Duckler Imagines When I Am King

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[dropcap]When[/dropcap] Heidi Duckler first encountered the King Hing Theater in Chinatown, the dormant cinema was filled with not entirely unexpected flotsam.

“It was full of movie reels,” says the noted LA choreographer, known for her site-specific performances and for founding the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre.

Soon after, Duckler went to the owner of the building (which has been vacant since the 90s and, reportedly, was once a real estate prospect of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino) and asked if she could use the abandoned reels in her upcoming performance there.

“I had visions of making costumes out of filmstrips and using the reels as part of the set, maybe,” says Duckler. “They were very beautiful, and it was all written in Chinese.”

The owner wasn’t quite as keen.

“He said, ‘We don’t know anything about these reels. We just don’t know what their historical significance might be,’ so they donated all of those reels to the UCLA film archive,” explains Duckler. “So when the film reels left and there was nothing there, [the space] became very nondescript.”

The initial spark of inspiration was gone, but Duckler and her creative team managed to maintain a cinematic strand throughout the work that they’ve made in response to the King Hing Theater — a site-specific dance performance titled, When I Am King.

At show time, a woman tosses and turns between a velvety curtain and a mesh screen — a figure trapped between two sheets of celluloid. In a derelict projection room, a bespectacled man — doing pops, locks and isolations — examines filmstrips under the glow of a green light bulb, like an old-time editor searching for just the right place to cut and splice two scenes together. Meanwhile, glistening strings span across the theater like beams of light emitting from a film projector.

L.A.’s film history and industry ties weren’t necessarily on Duckler’s mind when she was working on When I Am King with her team of dancers and designers, but she did think about the theater’s architecture — an arrangement of theatrical spaces and hidden back rooms — in narrative terms.

“I wanted it to be solos in those rooms. And I thought of each soloist being sort of a different kind of character,” explains Duckler.

She imagined the man in the projection room — danced by Micah Abbrey — as a Wizard of Oz type figure, devising plans from behind the scenes. She thought of another player, who prowls and paces in the theater’s glass-covered box office (danced by Nicholas Heitzeberg), as a beast trapped in a cage. The woman sandwiched between two screens was the “ghost” of the theater. “Each of the characters were looking for power,” says Duckler.

Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo, who dances with several projected video clips of herself in one of the theater’s back rooms, plays a woman trying to manage her multiple personalities, seeking control of them all through the dance.

“[She is] a woman who has several personalities within her, really trying to figure out how to allow all those versions of herself to be,” explains Barcelo.

One video segment, bathed in a verdant wash, shows Barcelo in a psychedelic, Leprechaun-green outfit, exploring her surroundings. Another clip is bright pink, with a disturbed version of her alter ego twitching nervously on her side, wearing a floral dress. In another video, Barcelo’s cinematic counterpart wears a salmon-hued evening gown and hangs upside-down from the ceiling. She appears calm and serene. These various costumes, says Barcelo, inspired different aspects of her movement by fully fleshing out the characters wearing them.

“We gave them different definitions, different emotions, and so different colors.”

The projections integrated into the performance also underline a theme of the show: the various identities, or selves, that we present to the world — and that are presented to us — through the various screens of our lives, from the small ones we carry in our palms each day to the (much larger) silver screen.

Set designer Dan Evans thought a lot about this idea as he was considering how to respond to the space through his designs. He noticed that the theater’s various openings — from windows and doorways to the projection room’s square frames — resembled television and smartphone screens. And if there were all these architectural screens, how should the audience be watching this performance?

“To me,” says Evans, “the questions that the space asks are ‘Who is the audience? Where do they go? Are they needed anymore?’ I kept thinking of social media. How do we, sort of, collect our audience? Or, how do engage with them? How do we attract them?”

Duckler, whose company is known for not rehearsing or performing in traditional theater spaces, identified another challenge of using the King Hing. “How do we look at this as a theater — because that’s what it is — and yet not use it as a theater, but subvert it somehow?” she explains.

To answer those questions, Evans and Duckler decided to turn the traditional audience-facing-proscenium setup on its head. They dismantled the sea of seats filling up the theater’s auditorium, piled them up in giant mounds, and decided to have the audience enter from the backstage door, so that they could see the performance from the stage and get a view into the source of cinema’s luster — the light from the projection room’s portals.

“It kind of became this reversal,” says Evans. “You’re usually in the audience looking at this big picture frame, and now we’re sort of onstage looking at these tiny picture frames.”

“I think we clear cut the theater. We deforested it,” adds Duckler, alluding to the uprooting of the chairs once bolted to the theater’s concrete floor. “Once we cut down the forest, we could sort of see.”

Like a director finding the perfect frame, the view and the pathway forward became clear.

NOW PLAYING: WHEN I AM KING by the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, through November 4.

Christina Campodonico

Christina Campodonico

Christina is an arts journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Argonaut, where she is a staff writer. She loves reading, writing and watching other people perform.