Dancer Meditates on Growing Older in 'Ancient Terrain'

Time doesn't come on little cat feet when you're a dancer, and Heidi Duckler knows it. But that doesn't mean she is ready to hang up her leotard.

"I'm 36 and at a crossroads in terms of being a dancer," she says. Which is why she has taken Terpsichore by the horns and created a dance about aging.

Her Collage Dance Theatre presents its multimedia, non-linear "meditation" titled "Ancient Terrain" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art today, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

In addition to Collage's members, "Ancient Terrain" features a dozen dancers from ages 6 to 86. Choreographed interludes alternate with interviews of the dancers and others projected on a 7-foot video monitor.

The piece was conceived in collaboration with video artist Hali Paul, visual artist John Garrett, composer Eric Schmidt and writer Jim Kruscoe. They began work on the project more than a year ago and have received funding from the National/State/County Partnership Program.

"You have a limited lifetime as a dancer and (yet) you aren't willing to give it up," Duckler says. "So you begin to wonder if it's possible to speak through someone else's body."

She put an ad in the trade newspapers calling for dancers of all ages because she "wanted to deal with movement on different bodies at different points in people's lives."

Working with this unusual group made Duckler examine her own dancer's values.

"As you get older, your perspective on your art changes and priorities change," she says.

"It's that paradox: Just as you really know what you want to say or you finally have something to say (as a dancer), your body's limitations on your being able to say it begin to appear."

Duckler also came face to face with her own preconceptions about age. What challenged her most was combining respect for the senior dancers with the imperatives of getting the choreography set.

"On one level, I thought, 'Well, who am I to tell someone who's 85 how to move?' It seemed so presumptuous and I didn't want just to impose (my ideas on them)," she recalls.

"I wanted to elicit an original inspiration from the dancers, to get them to use their own (movement) vocabularies and to shape the movement that grew out of who they were in terms of age and their lifetime.

"And it was hard. Especially with my dancers, who'd say, 'Just tell us what you want us to do and we'll do it.'

"But I didn't want to do that."

Eimi Guirao, a 26-year-old member of Collage, says the "experience of working with a whole range of people, (including) artists and people who aren't usually dancers," made the new work "rewarding, but also trying."

Morris Hattem, 72, has danced much of his life. He echoes Guirao's enthusiasm, calling the process "stimulating."

"Who knows? Maybe I'll be a ballet dancer in my later years," he says. "I never thought that I'd be getting feedback from so many different ages and temperaments."

Even though Duckler had done her homework by going to senior centers and dance classes and talking with people of various ages, she was still surprised. None of her excursions quite prepared her for, say, "the vitality of one woman who had found yoga in her 70s."

Nor was Duckler ready for the emotions unleashed when the participants in the show were interviewed on video.

"People cried. They started thinking about their mortality, attitudes toward death, aging, childhood and their regrets," she says.

"One woman's daughter had died, and she didn't know how to answer the question of whether she was a mother," Duckler says. "It was odd because something so natural--such a part of the life cycle--wasn't with her.

"Another man hadn't danced for years and was very contemplative about whether he'd made the right choices," she says.

All of these shared experiences have combined to change Duckler's understanding of age. "What is old ?" she asks. "I'm beginning to think that there's only older ."

"Aging is something that happens to all of us all the time, but I've barely had time to even touch upon what it means. I think I've begun to understand it as a continuum, with the cycle going on and on. One human life span is so small compared with the immensity of time."

Which doesn't mean Duckler believes that one life can't make a difference. She thinks it's incumbent upon everyone--especially her peers--to fight prejudice against age.

"Here we are--the baby boom generation--we were all so important when we were young," she says.

"And now we're aging, and I'm sure that will make a big difference in the climate of the country. I hope it's a good difference, both socially and politically."

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