Urban Distinction : Choreographer Heidi Duckler's Collage theatre company makes all the inner-city world a stage and all the boys and girls dancers

Robert Koehler writes regularly for Calendar

In her continual quest for anyplace but a dance gallery to stage her work, choreographer Heidi Duckler and her Collage Dance Theatre company have taken over old Laundromats, older gas stations, outdoor fountains, building roofs and churches to play out a series aptly titled "Urban Extinction."

Duckler thinks she may have a new urban victim to add to the list.

"Public schools look like they're coming awfully close to extinction--or at least, fighting for their survival," she says in the living room of her Mulholland hillside home. Schooling is on her mind these days, as Duckler is embarking on an ambitious dance workshop launched Jan. 4 and sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club of Venice for youths ages 6 to 17. "With the public schools cutting back on the arts more and more," she adds, "there has to be a way of filling the vacuum."

Actually, Duckler, 40, has been doing precisely that for some time. She has been teaching children and teen-agers terpsichorean rigors and pleasures since her days as a promising force in the dance scene of her hometown, Portland, Ore. But Duckler's new project in Venice marks something new for her and the Boys & Girls Club.

"One of my greatest concerns is the performer developing a sense of place," she says. "Just about 30% of the kids at the club are homeless, so their sense of place is very different from all the kids lucky enough to wake up with a roof over their heads."

And 70% of the kids who regularly attend club activities are "minority or from low-income homes or raised by a single parent, or all three," according to club Executive Director David C. Mandell.

The club's only previous professional artist-in-residence was Ann Wolken, whose mural workshop received praise from the club's national sponsor, the Boys & Girls Club of America, and produced a wall calendar of the children's colorful landscapes of the Venice area.

The creative challenge for Duckler's youngsters will be very different. Duckler says her "guiding purpose is to teach a sense of space, time, energy, movement, and tie that into kids' personal experiences, then link it with a site, a physical place. We'll explore the beach, naturally, but also the schools, the neighborhood streets. They're going to strongly influence the site we finally choose for our performance, which we're setting for the end of July."

Between now and then, though, there is a journey--especially for Duckler. Besides preparing her workshop, juggling her regular classes and raising her two children, Anya, 9, and Austen, 5, with architect husband Dan Rosenfeld, Duckler is handling two works in progress: a third child, due in early March, and a Collage dance performance tentatively titled "Still Life" and commissioned by Glendale's Brand Library for its performance series.

Typically for Duckler, both baby and performance have surprised people: "Some of my friends think that I'm crazy to start this workshop while I'm pregnant, but I can handle it, and it's kind of a new experience with my body," while the Glendale project "though still in the early stages is going to happen on the Brand Park baseball diamond, which really puzzled the Glendale people."

It shouldn't have, considering Duckler's body of work. Praised by Jan Breslauer in the Los Angeles Times as "the reigning queen of L.A. site-specific dance-performance," Duckler's Collage company has literally burst out of the constraints of traditional performance spaces to create comic, multimedia pieces ranging from "Laundromatinee" at Santa Monica's Thrifty Wash to "Church of Food" at Santa Monica's Unitarian Community Church to "Parts & Labor: A Dance Transmission" at Studio Automotive in Studio City.

Duckler's running concerns combine a sense of preserving the city's old, neglected corners with a performance language employing unexpected props, music, video distinct characters and a healthy sense of the absurd. "My model," Duckler says, "has always been Lucille Ball. I grew up being a total comedian, but I also knew I wanted to dance."

Most if not all of this will seep into her workshop at the Boys & Girls Club, and she already knows where her props are coming from: the club's bric-a-brac-stuffed thrift shop. ("It's one of their main fund-raising entities, and I'll be poring through there for stuff.")

But how does Duckler take youngsters, some of them right off the Venice streets, and turn them into a dance troupe? "It begins in the six-week workshop," she says, "in which we'll develop a dance vocabulary, so they'll have something to hang their ideas on. We'll start with everyone's name, the word that identifies them, the word with which kids feel most confident. We'll verbally send the names around a group circle, going faster and faster until it gets abstracted, and the body gets involved in calling out the name.

"Then we'll move into a series of exercises--aligning the spine on top of the feet, flexibility, isolating parts of the body, swinging, collapsing, rising. We'll go on to explore shapes, pairing off and mirroring the partner, so each can see what they look like, something kids don't always have a sense of. I'll ask them to bring in pictures or words which we might end up playing with to create a movement.

"All of this gives kids incredible self-confidence, because they often end up teaching each other. The ball really gets passed back and forth, as they take directions from me, and me from them. The most crucial point here is to let them access and express who they are. I'm there to help shape things, but the inspiration comes from them."

The age group that most concerns and interests Mandell and the club is the teen-age crowd most vulnerable to Venice's drug and gang culture, so Duckler's company will be thick with dancing teen-agers. The class will also take field trips to see L.A. dance performances.

"In a way," she notes, "seeing other performers. . . . is also a kind of mirroring. Kids making art have to see other artists at work. . . ."

By July, Duckler will be the mother of three--and perhaps 20 or more dancers.

Performance of "Still Life" June 27 at Brand Park baseball diamond, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale. For information on the Boys & Girls Club, call (310) 391-6301.

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