In the heart of the garment district in downtown LA, sits the gothic revival style building known as the Bendix. Built in 1929, this iconic building has become the home of ”many of LA’s most passionate artists and creators.” This would include Heidi Duckler Dance whose studio on the 11th floor opens onto a large rooftop patio where the magnificent views of downtown serve as a backdrop for her most recent work. On Sunday August 14th she hosted a salon with drinks and appetizers. The audience members mingled taking in the lofty views and enjoying a cool breeze after a blisteringly hot day.
Because this project is supported in part by an arts grant from the City of West Hollywood, Duckler made the bold choice to address the diverse communities that make up a large part of the West Hollywood population. Approximately 30% of West Hollywood is made up of Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union, while another 40% of the population is a diverse group who identify as LGBTQ+. In keeping with this Duckler, wrote and directed “Counterintelligence; The Story of Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka” based on an 1860’s Russian folktale.
A large screen was set up on the rooftop and the guests were seated. Surrounded by the sparkling cityscape and crowned by the glowing red “Bendix” sign towering above, it was the perfect location to showcase her new work. The film was shot and edited by, Nicolas Savignano, to resemble early silent movies with title cards and exaggerated mime, also evoked the later Jean Cocteau’s dreamy fantasy film, “Beauty and the Beast” in its style. With the interesting soundscape by, Sarah Belle Reid, my expectations were high.
Duckler has modernized the story, setting it in contemporary West Hollywood. This is a simple tale told in six segments, there are lost children, elevated in age to 20-somethings, a narcissistic King, an evil Witch, poisoned water and an Imposter, all elements that make for a good fairytale and though the signs were promising, the film quickly lost its footing. The narrative was convoluted by a lack of clear focus. Why, for example, is the brother turned into a thirsty deer? Why is the witch after the siblings? Why is the imposter turned into a Duck? Why the drunken seduction? And moreover what is the moral lesson?
The dancer/actors did their best to bring energy and life to the film but unfortunately the dancing, which is what they do best, is limited to several short moments that often descend into mime and improvisation. More actual dancing would have been welcome. Sister Aylonuska as played by, Andrea Burr, is a spritely firefly, as is her Imposter, Ching Ching Wong. Darrel “Friidom” Dunn, plays the limited role of the Deer/Brother Ivanuska. The King as performed by the handsome, Raymond Ejiofor, lacks a clear character. As the Witch, William Jay Ylvisaker, steals every scene he is in, while dressed in full and very funny drag, in an obvious nod to the aforementioned LGBTQ community. The provocative choreography is by, Raymond Ejiofor.
At the conclusion of the film the audience was asked to turn their chairs to face the beautiful tall arched windows of Duckler’s studio, through which we would view the live segment. The atmosphere created by the blue-lit columns and the lamp lit interior, gave us an intoxicating sense of peering voyeuristically, into someone’s living room. Dancer, Raymond Ejiofor, is found center, sitting at his desk furiously writing as paper notes shower down on him. Is he the author of the fairytale facing a writer’s block or is he overwhelmed with ideas? We don’t know. Next, Darrel “Friidom” Dunn, appears at a table far to our right and finally, to our left coming through a window and drinking martini’s on a couch is, Andrea Burr. There is well-executed choreography here but for all the emotions displayed, we are left to guess what motivates the movement and how it ties into the film. When the three dancers finally come together to dance in unison, the tension lifts and we the audience are allowed a moment to take a breath. More moments like this and more attention paid to the difficult sight lines would bring more cohesiveness. Composer, Justin Scheid, performed the music live and though I appreciate his ability to improvise, something akin to a melody would have helped to draw everything together.
Heidi Duckler can tell a story as was evident in her evocative piece from 2021 “The Chandelier” but in this work the narrative is jumbled and the message unclear. Duckler has style and is a font of ideas. She has proved to be a master of site-specific work and perhaps most importantly she can create a lingering mood. Therefore, the potential to make “The Story of Sister Alyonushka and Brother Ivanushka,” something distinctive is significant, if Ms. Duckler can allow the story to be the star.
To learn more about Heidi Duckler Dance, please visit their website.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Heidi Duckler Dance – “Counterintelligence” – Photo by Rush Varela