A beautiful stage is in the eye of the choreographer. For her site-specific performance this weekend, the founder of the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre will transform a nearly 100-year-old former printing warehouse under renovation in Los Angeles' Chinatown, filling it with a French Canadian jazz quartet and seven contemporary dancers whose puffy brocade gowns, contrasting soft-cotton Chinese pajamas and other brightly colored costumes will swirl together at the in-flux construction site.
"In-flux is what we're all about," Heidi Duckler says of her dance company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
"As a site-specific company, we're kind of nomadic because we don't have a permanent space; we're always making our work in different places and responding to locations. It's about constant movement. That's what makes us alive -- responding to real life, which is always in a state of motion."
"Chinatown Blues," which is about the blending of cultures, also features the four-piece, Montreal-based Claire Gignac et Compagnie, who will accompany the dancers with original music.
The event is part of a year-long anniversary paying homage to the Duckler tradition of putting on live dance in nontraditional locations.
Over the past three decades, the company has staged more than 200 performances in unexpected spots around the world: a load-in dock outside a 1,000-year-old theater in Russia, a pedestrian bridge in Hong Kong, local parking lots, coin-operated laundry rooms, hospitals -- all with an emphasis on melding disparate cultures. Also central to the company's mission: bringing arts to underserved communities that might not be able to afford theater tickets.
"It's this three-pronged process of bringing together the audience and the art and the spaces," she says. "It's place-making and community-building and art-making."
So far, anniversary-year events have included a revival of a 1993 Duckler piece, "Parts and Labor," originally staged in L.A.-area gas stations and re-staged in the parking lots of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
Upcoming anniversary performances include "Brush Up," a collaboration with a calligraphy artist from Tokyo that will take place at the Brand Library in Glendale in June; and "Sophie and Charlie," a sort of dance telenovela that unfolds for five weeks in a series of performances around the city this fall.
Duckler found the building for "Chinatown Blues" earlier this year. She fell in love with the gritty, open site that's being turned into creative work spaces. The location inspired the dance movements.
"I have ideas before I start, but the movement is created on site, never in a studio," Duckler says. "It's so collaborative. I call the dancers 'dance makers' because they really design the movement, it comes from their backgrounds and techniques. The work is about partners -- between individuals, between individuals and the space, and also the audience. It's intimate work."
"Chinatown Blues" begins outdoors, then moves inside, where dancers explore architectural details as well as the building's identity, past and present. A striking antique table that Duckler found on site factors in prominently.
"It's this mysterious object and we don't know anything about its history," Duckler says. "This big, heavy, dark wood, round table -- I think of it like King Arthur's round table. It has this ancient feel -- so it became symbolic of community."
"Chinatown Blues" is the third collaboration between Duckler and Gignac. The ensemble worked on Duckler's "Bowling Blues" in San Francisco and Montreal bowling alleys.
This weekend's performance will end with the communal sharing of a strawberry anniversary cake from nearby Phoenix Bakery.
The post-show dessert is more than a celebratory nod to Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre's 30 years, however.
"Social bonds are really important to our company. We work in a very collaborative way, our staff and our artists, and we include our audience in that process," Duckler says. "Sharing food -- it gives you an opportunity to talk about what you've seen and share your feelings about it. It's not just, 'lights are up and out you go.' You can take a moment to connect."
"Chinatown Blues," 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 837 N. Spring St., Los Angeles; $50 (includes parking, drinks and snacks), students and seniors $25.