INTERVIEW: Heidi Duckler Talks About “Underway,” a New Dance Opera That Takes Place Under the 7th Street Bridge

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Dancers Himerria Wortham and Raymond Ejifor. Photo: Mae Koo

Heidi Duckler Dance has a long history of performing in nontraditional spaces, and the company’s new production, Underway, takes place in the area beneath the 7th Street Bridge in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District. The audience will sit facing the train tracks as they accompany the dancers and musicians on a journey to the underworld. The site-specific dance opera, presented in conjunction with LA Opera’s Eurydice Found Festival, will have only two performances, March 14 & 15, 2020, at 7:30pm.

Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” Underway is directed and choreographed by Heidi Duckler with music created by four composers—an opera for six voices by Leaha Maria Villarreal, a mix of woodwinds by William Roper, a sheet metal installation by Sarah Belle Reid, and flute, electric  bass, and megaphones by Justin Scheid. The cast features Heidi Duckler Dance company members Himerria Wortham, Myles Lavallee, Anthea Young, Rafael Quintas, Lily Ontiveros, Keva Walker, and Santiago Villarreal. Lighting design is by Grant Dunn, set design is by Alex Ward and Tanya Orellana, and costumes are by Snezana Petrovic.

Heidi Duckler’s plans for the 7th Street Bridge extend beyond this production. She is working to transform the bridge’s old pedestrian walkway, which is currently closed to the public, into a public art space called The Span.  She talked to Cartwheel about Underway and her plans for the future.

What inspired you to set a show under the 7th Street Bridge?

I’d been exploring the Seventh Street Bridge for a while, because I became friends with a developer who owns property on one side of the bridge, and I also became friends with a woman who owns property on the other side of the bridge. And so we just started talking about the importance of the way it bridges these communities—the Arts District and Boyle Heights—and then really looking at this bridge, which has this incredible passageway underneath it that’s been sealed off for a hundred years.

The Seventh Street Bridge originally wasn’t built for cars. It was built for people to walk across. It was a passageway for pedestrians, and there was a trolley that went across the bridge. And then another bridge was built on top of the Seventh Street Bridge for cars to access.

I crawled underneath and met a gentleman who lived there underneath the bridge—he’s lived there for eight years—and we became friends. I’d come periodically to visit him, and we’d talk.

I wanted to see if we could make that into a performance space, which would be amazing. The vistas… you can see the LA River, you can see both sides, and to have public access to that would be nothing less than a miracle. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about it. I brought the city engineer inside, the fire marshal, and other people. It is certainly possible, but it will take a lot of effort on many people’s parts. I’m working on it diligently, but meanwhile I heard about what the LA Opera is doing, and I thought, “Wow, this is a perfect place to think about the underworld.” I’m friends with Stacy Brightman, a wonderful woman who runs the education division at LA Opera. I told her my idea, and she loved it, too, so we started to plan it. And here we are!

What can you tell us about Underway?

The show itself is just so much fun. I’m working with so many wonderful artists and designers in terms of costume and set design. We have some scaffolding, so that we can play with that and scale, and the dancers are amazing. It’s such a wonderful thing because the audience goes on a journey with the artists. The underworld is all these different gates, so you go through one gate and then another gate, and you go through these different levels. I love journeyed performance where the audience is very close to the performers and very much in their midst, so we have this experience together. It’s gonna be so beautiful and spooky and wonderful.

Dancers Himerria Wortham and Raymond Ejifor. Photo: Mae Koo
Top and above: Dancers Himerria Wortham and Raymond Ejifor. Photos: Mae Koo

What do you want people to know about the larger project, The Span @ 7th Street Bridge?

It takes support from the community for a huge project like this. Maybe we can look to the Olympics to unveil a space, so that it can be developed in a way that’s just sort of an open, available space for artists and expression that’s accessible to all kinds of people.

When I’ve talked about the space, I’ve called it The Span, because it spans both sides, it spans the future, it spans anything we want to make out of it. It spans process and community building and all those things.

I met this incredible neighborhood music school on the Boyle Heights side that’s been there for 100 years. There’s all kinds of opportunity to bring these groups together and to open it up for community groups who need a place to gather. There aren’t very many places like that, and I think you can provide an open space that’s so cool and different under the bridge.

For one, you can really see the Sixth Street Bridge being built. It’s the best viewing place in the city to see that. So, you’re seeing that your city is sort of in a state of disarray, but also a state of construction and rebuilding.

And you see the LA River and all of the potential that it has, and you see the railroad tracks and Metro and Amtrak going by. You’re witness to a lot of activity that’s kind of the city behind the scenes in a way. It has its own beauty, and it’s always in process, so artists can draw inspiration from all these things that are a part of the world that’s evocative, but hidden.

What is the pedestrian space itself like? And what kind of public art space are you envisioning?

It has the natural cover of the bridge, and the sort of arched window-like things that are part of the structure of the bridge. We’d want to leave it as it is organically. It’s important to not overbuild it or make it into something that it isn’t. It would be important to me that it retains its sort of natural state.

It has a bunch of old pipes that are no longer of use. You could take them out, and then I think you could just put down a floor, a wood floor or something that people could perform on or where people could watch. The cost wouldn’t be very great to leave it simple and let it be able to be transformed by the artists that are there or that encounter it. Let the transformation be from people and not materials.

Tickets to Underway are $65 General Admission / $45 Senior & Student / $100 VIP (Includes VIP seating and catered reception following performance).

Saturday, March 14, & Sunday, March, 15, 2020 (7:30 pm)

7th Street Bridge
Corner of 7th Street Pl. and Santa Fe Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90021

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