There's a long carpeted area on the 51st floor of the Paul Hastings Tower in downtown Los Angeles that most people would identify as a hallway. But in the eyes of Heidi Duckler, it's the site of the ancient Roman Battle of Actium.
At a recent rehearsal for her latest production, the 59-year-old site-specific dance veteran assumed the role of a general as she outlined to her dancers the plan of attack for simulating the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony squaring off against their enemy Octavian. "We need moments that are fast and aggressive followed by moments of suspension," she said.
While the dancers experimented with combative, martial-arts-inspired kicking, rolling and stabbing movements that could travel down the hallway, Duckler took a visitor around the 30,000-square-foot penthouse where her company will perform "Cleopatra, CEO" for a three-week run beginning Thursday. Formerly the world headquarters of the Atlantic Richfield Co., otherwise known as ARCO, the vacated space, in the choreographer's imagination, has distinct geographical regions where the famous Egyptian queen's saga intertwines with the ghostly residue of the oilmen who once worked there.
"We're in Alexandria now," she said, stopping in front of a wall dominated by a geometric mural painting by Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer. Pointing at two marble-topped secretarial stations, she added that the dancers will treat them as boats.
Then, she headed purposefully toward "Rome," a former executive office with a large fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views of Los Angeles. "They'll kill Caesar here.... I mean, every good show has to have a murder, right?" she says, laughing.
Since founding the recently renamed Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in 1985, Duckler has built much of her prominent and prolific career on mining the kinetic and artistic possibilities of architectural spaces in addition to excavating the lives of historic and/or mythic characters. Over the years, she has merged these dual passions in productions such as her 2009 "Really, All About Eve, Verse 1," which explored the biblical first lady from a feminist perspective at both a local synagogue and church, and her 2010 "Oh, Cosmonaut!," which took place at a palace in Yaroslavl, Russia, and paid homage to Valentina Tereshkova, the first female space traveler.
"Cleopatra, CEO," however, might just be one of Duckler's most ambitious projects to date. Chock full of references dating from ancient Egypt to the 1980s TV show "Dynasty," the narrative-driven work features 11 scenes, 13 dancers, an opera singer and a flute player and attempts to find resonance in the seemingly unlikely pairing of an ancient female icon with a 1970s architectural interior symbolizing male executive wealth and power.
And as with all of Duckler's site-specific works, "there's a lot of determining where we'll be and where the audience will be," says Marissa Labog, one of the dancers and Duckler's rehearsal director. "It's always challenging to figure out how to utilize the space in a way so that it doesn't become just another proscenium stage for the audience."
Earlier, over tea at a Westwood café, Duckler acknowledges a lifelong fascination with Cleopatra, which she largely attributes to the 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and "growing up in the 1950s, where there was an exoticism of the East. Plus I think I was drawn to Cleopatra's courage and how she took control of her life," she says. "Cleopatra wanted to unite Egypt and Rome, and I wanted to boss around the other kids in my neighborhood."
More recently, Duckler read Stacy Schiff's biography and appreciated "how the book depicts Cleopatra through a feminist perspective." But she never came across a venue where her company might bring the Egyptian queen to life until one of her board members arranged an introduction with the Thomas Properties Group, the management company that owns the City National Plaza complex. Completed in 1972 and hailed at the time as a major business center in downtown Los Angeles, the complex includes both the City National Bank Tower and the Paul Hastings Tower, with its empty 51st floor.
Vacated by ARCO about a decade ago, the 51st floor has since been used for film shoots and business conferences, says Tom Ricci, executive vice president of Thomas Properties Group and the person who arranged for Duckler's company to become a temporary tenant of the space, rent-free.
Noting his company normally doesn't lend out space, Ricci adds: "We admired that Heidi creates interesting and uniquely artistic performances in a variety of environments and we saw how that could be an amenity for our tenants and an opportunity for our restaurants and retailers."
For Duckler, "everything came together" the moment she laid eyes on the space. "It was like King Tut's tomb going in there," she says of its opulent architectural details. "I found it such a symbol of excess and money, and it was such a male space … except for the secretaries there weren't a lot of women working here so I thought it would be really interesting to explore the nature of female power in this setting."
Seeking to "entwine the ancient and the contemporary," Duckler worked with writer Terry Wolverton on the show's narrative structure and "we came up with the overarching theme of ambition. There are beautiful things about ambition, and there is also the darker side, like getting to the top at whatever cost and the damage that causes," she says.
Since celebrating her company's 25th anniversary two years ago, it seems that Duckler has been living her own tale of a woman expanding her power. In addition to changing the name of her company, formerly Collage Dance Theatre, she has increased her oeuvre from 60 to some 70 works and transformed her administrative staff from a lone all-purpose assistant into a team of six.
"Right, I really am Cleopatra, CEO," she jokes before conceding she might be emulating some of the qualities of the ancient queen. "I'm interested in participating in the world, just like Cleopatra was, and I'm always looking for new opportunities and new directions."