When the pandemic drove dance performances online or into parking lots before audiences seated in their cars with the car lights providing the lighting, a few dance troupes ventured performances that moved in outdoor venues where  masked pods of audience followed masked dancers, while everyone kept a safe distance apart.

One of the latter efforts involved Achinta McDaniel and her Blue 13 Dance Company, known for a mix of contemporary dance with South Asian dance including Bollywood. In August 2021, the choreographer and her dancers presented Shaadi, a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience evoking a wedding in India that moved among the Victorian mansions of the Heritage Square Museum.

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

Three years on, the choreographer and Blue 13 return to Heritage Square, this time moving inside and outside among the eight restored buildings representing California’s first century.

McDaniel took time from rehearsal, wardrobe checks, and all the other final details, to talk with LA Dance Chronicle’s Ann Haskins about the return to Heritage Square and the new, even more immersive show Soliloquy.

LADC: How did this return to Heritage Square happen?

McDaniel: In 2021, we had such an incredible time and the response was so wonderful from the audiences. We knew we had to be back and the folks at Heritage Square really wanted us to return. The first show was smack in the middle of a pandemic. We had this little sweet spot to do the show when the vaccines came out and people were still masked. We did not use most of the inside spaces, but we used much of the gardens and the outside among the houses. At the time, I said I know I have to come back here so we can utilize more of these beautiful structures that are so grand and strange and filled with so much history. So I sort of vowed to the company and Heritage Square that we would be back.

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

How did you assemble the new work?

McDaniel: We wrote a grant a couple years ago for the National Endowment for the Arts. We were awarded that grant to support this immersive new piece for 2024 so that it all kind of worked together.

Also, the Pasadena theater group, A Noise Within, hosted us last fall for a couple of weeks of residency so we could continue to develop the work. We’ve been working on it for about a good year, but thinking about it for a good three years, ever since that first show in 2021.

LADC: What were the challenges or choices this time using interiors as well as the exteriors?

McDaniel: Part of the thrill of this time is because we have been there before, we weren’t going into it kind of blind like the first time. This time we really knew what each of the structures were like, because of last time. We’re working in seven different structures, the homes, then the chapel and the drug store. We’re excited that this time we’re going to utilize an additional house, the Octagon House, which wasn’t restored in 2021. It will also be new to go into the drugstore which is not a 19th century Victorian structure, but more of a 1950s sort of soda shop/apothecary. Each of those has multiple rooms within them and for the first time, Heritage Square is allowing the patrons to go upstairs into the bedrooms of the Perry house which is the first mansion on the left when you walk in.

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by DAK

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by DAK

: What attracts you to this type of immersive performance?

McDaniel: When we did Shaadi in 2021, it ignited something, another sort of deeper commitment to this space. Also just thinking about the history of the makers of these structures, the Victorian world where they came from, the history of my ancestry as an Indian woman as well as an American woman, right? So really we’re dancing on the idea of these these structures where they are positioned historically and that being intertwined with the sort of tightrope walking of identity that I as a first generation daughter, and so many other Americans have as first generation children of immigrants. All that really comes to life in the space.

Patrons walk into a bedroom walk, walk into this ballroom, stand in the living room with dancer who is supposed to be having these quiet thoughts, but it’s a real soliloquy the audience watches, hence the title. So we’re able to accomplish these moments of beautiful solos by isolating dancers in these different rooms in these different structures.

LADC: Tell me about these solos?

McDaniel: What’s been really wonderful is the process with the dancers. The work is so collaborative, playing with it, which we always do. In this case, we really were going back to sort of the roots of using chance and creating scores for the dancers. Back when we were developing the work so individually, the dancers would create these beautiful movement phrases. I would come in and tinker with that, we would go back and forth, collaborate and play and negotiate and create all these beautiful solos. It really makes my job more fun and creative to have this conversation back and forth with each individual dancer to make these solos come to life.

That was the first phase. Now in the second phase, we have that conversation, that playing back and forth, this time from a site specific lens within the structures on the homes. The third negotiation is when everything shifts and changes with our spectators who turn into participants and they will shape the work. Where they stand affects how we move or when we invite them to choose the song that a solo is going to be danced to in a certain room.

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

Blue 13 Dance Company. Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography

: Why the title Soliloquy?

McDaniel: I created Soliloquy for this space in particular is because each solo is a soliloquy. So it’s about the idea of these dancers revealing their dark inner turmoil or demons, thoughts that are remain are supposed to remain behind closed doors of your home, while at the same time inviting in these voyeurs.

LADC: What music are you using?

McDaniel: Oh, it’s a wild variety. Because there are seven structures, each place has its own set of speakers and its own set of music. It runs from Vivaldi to a classical Indian track to a 1960s Bollywood song to Charles Mingus jazz to a Beyoncé  song that just came out this year. So they’re all over the place. And that really speaks to the sort of differences that you see with the dancers and some of the stories that come to life. The cool part about it musically, and also from a dance perspective, is a no one will see everything in one night.

LADC: Will the audience be divided up and sent in different directions?

McDaniel: Yes, we send them off several directions right in the beginning. So we give them a real directive and then they’re called in different directions in fun ways. They might be given dinner invitations when they walk in that they are invited to the nine o’clock pm dinner at the Hale house. Later they will be called to dinner by hearing a dinner bell and an announcement of that the 9 pm dinner at Mrs. Hales house is beginning in five minutes.

Others will be given these black necklaces along with a black robe, then they’ll see a beautiful woman walking with a black robe. She will collect the robes and necklaces, then lead them up the stairs to the Perry house to dance her solo. It’s possible people will be jealous that they’re not able to follow, but everyone will be called to different mysterious settings.

Achinta S. McDaniel. Photo by Earl McDaniel

Achinta S. McDaniel. Photo by Earl McDaniel

: Why separate groups?

McDaniel: As the conjurer, I would love to elicit a real dialogue between people who might not otherwise speak to each other but who might ask someone coming out of a house what they witnessed or experienced. This criss cross effect will happen throughout the night, and I’m hoping that enlivened some conversation amongst our patrons.

At the end, everyone ends up doing the same loop at different times. And we repeat the choreography, three times in three structures. So they do everyone gets to have that moment. Then everyone gathers in the chapel and the evening culminates in basically a party at the end.

LADC:  Who are your dancers?

McDaniel: The dancers for Soliloquy are Alisa Carreras, Felisya Soqui-Garcia, Presley Hawk, Maiko Okajima, Ryley Clement, Jenna Wu-Cardona, Kaya McAfee, Jose Jose Arrieta Cuesta, Brian Wong, Tokie Wang, and Adrianna Vieux. USC Kaufman BFA Dance Majors: Braylon Browner, Simone Peterson, Ryann Simone Smith, Andrea Rodriguez, Ryan Amato, Jayde Woodard, and Emmy Cheung. Supporting dancers include Hayden Rivas, Myra Joy Veluz, Nate Riel, Colleen Melhuish, and Adarsh Satish. Enrique Lara plays live percussion.

For more information about Blue13 Dance Company – https://www.blue13dance.com/

For more information about Heritage Square Museum –  https://www.heritagesquare.org/

Blue 13 Dance Company – Soliloquy at Heritage Square Museum, 3800 Homer St., Montecito Heights; Fri.-Sat., May 31-June 1, 8 pm, Sun., June 2, 7 pm, $25-$100. Blue13Dance.com

Featured photo:  Blue 13 Dance Company in Shaadi.  Photo by Charlie Kaine Photography