TEDxUCLA 2015: Beyond the Box

Radical dance in everyday places


About Heidi 

Heidi Duckler is the Artistic Director and founder of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre. Since its inception in 1985, she has choreographed more than 200 original dance works at unique sites in Australia, Germany, Russia, Hong Kong, Montreal, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, and throughout Southern California. Titled “the reigning queen of site-specific performance,” by the L.A. Times, her work has been commissioned by the Brisbane Festival, Miami Light, Grand Performances, REDCAT, Aben Dans in Denmark, Brookfield Properties, the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation, and Reed College among others.


Site-specific dance has the power to transform.

As a maker of site-specific dance, I’ve often been asked the question, “What happens first? Do you… Are you inspired by a place and then have, think of an idea to go with that place? Or do you have a great idea and then look for a location?”

It’s a hard question to answer because place and meaning are interrelated for me. Site-specific can be many things. It can be geographical, it can be architectural, it can be historic, it can be cultural, it can be a place of identity. But one thing is for sure: site-specific is specific. It has to do with someone, somehow, something, somewhere.

Site-specific is tied to location, and oftentimes we subvert the original intention of a place, the function of a place. Perhaps you saw that if you didn’t see that today at lunch when the dancers did that.

One of my first works was Laundromatinee. I made it in 1985. And when we make a work, we use the existing architecture and objects in the place. So we use the washers, the dryers, the countertops, the aisles, the laundry baskets. Laundromats are oftentimes, they’re found in mini-malls and they provide a service to people who don’t have washers and dryers in their homes. So this is a place where dances are not typically not created in a place where dance is not viewed.

We we don’t rehearse in a closed door of a studio. We rehearse on-site. And people who go frequent laundromats do so oftentimes on a weekly, a weekly basis. So they come to do their wash. And they can kind of see the choreography being developed, they can see the process. They, they’re part of that, it brings the audience closer to the work.

A laundromat is a place we think we know. But do we really? I mean, we’re familiar with tedium. We we know about chores, we go to the gas station, we go to a grocery store, we waited in line for a box lunch. But do we really know it?

Site-specific dance can make the ordinary extraordinary. It can cause us to see, to look at what we think we know and see it differently.

Oftentimes, I take my, my audiences on artistic journeys throughout a building. Let’s say, for instance, a building is a metaphor for the body. And we travel y’know, through the lobby, which is the skin. Through the hallways, which are the arteries. Up through the roof, which could be the brain or the lungs. And down through the basement, which could be the toxins.

One such building I used was City Hall. We used the rotunda and did Greek folk dancing in a circle, which is a symbol of democracy. We used the hallway and took the fluorescent lights from the ceiling and put them on the floor, turning it upside down. In the plaza, the dancers used flamenco and West African dance and breakdancing, contemporary dance, and connected the dancers to the exterior, to the neo-Byzantine architecture in the in the plaza.

We’ve also done this in hotels, in the Ambassador Hotel, the Dunbar Hotel in South Central, the Miami… in Miami Beach here, we did it at the Eden Roc Hotel with the housekeepers performing for the guests. And in this way, site-specific dance can be political as well.

In site-specific dance, there is no backstage. Nobody lives in the wings. Real life is the source for our inspiration.

So I encourage you all to take the objects, the directives, the places in our world, and to think of them in ways in which they were not intended.

It is my, it’s my goal as a site-specific artist to… yeah, to do that. But also to reveal the substance of our lives, no matter how ordinary we think they might be. Thank you.