Interview with director Heidi Duckler Dance

SHORT BIO OF THE DIRECTOR: Heidi Duckler is the Founder and Artistic Director of Heidi Duckler Dance in Los Angeles, California and Heidi Duckler Dance/Northwest in Portland, Oregon. Titled the “reigning queen of site-specific performance” by the LA Times, Duckler has created more than 400 dance pieces all over the world. Duckler earned a BS in Dance from the University of Oregon and an MA in Choreography from UCLA, and is currently a Board Member of the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance Advancement Council. Awards include the Distinguished Dance Alumna award from the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, the Dance/USA and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Engaging Dance Audiences award, and the National Endowment of the Arts American Masterpiece award. Duckler was recipient of the 2019 Oregon Dance Film Commission and her work received the award for Best Choreography For the Lens at Verve Dance Film Festival. Currently, she is the recipient of the 2021 Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I cannot think of a particular event that drew me to filmmaking. I have always documented my work since the inception of my company 35 years ago, and film felt like a natural extension of my site-specific work. When creating a piece at a site, it is all about illuminating the hidden elements of a place. To do this, I have always had to be in touch with the audience and where they are looking. In this way, creating dance films felt very organic for me. With film, you can even get deeper into the site because you can take the lens into places where an audience might have difficulty accessing. Film to me is all about increasing access: allowing audiences from around the world to interact with our work by
bringing the site to them!

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

This is a difficult question. Getting started is difficult, yes, but really getting started is impossible unless you have the drive to do it. Even if daunted by the prospect of failure. If you can get past this point, then only can the question become how you sustain your love and passion for what you do. For me, there is no particular thing I had to overcome to get where I am now. There are always bumps along the way but to me, being an artist is about cultivating a daily practice. Upholding your confidence and honoring your intellect; collaborating with those around you and finding inspiration everywhere; tending your artistic gifts and honoring your talents; listening to yourself and respecting times when you are burnt out. These are all hard lessons to learn, but essential elements of having a sustainable artistic

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

One of my favorite quotes by Faulkner, who said “that when you light a match in the darkness it is not to see anything better lit, but to notice how much more darkness there is around you.” It is through this lens, this lesson, that I view my dance practice and filmmaking. We are living in difficult times. With my art, I strive to illuminate the spaces around us, inviting my fellow humans to consider spatial equity and to look at space in a new way. Through reconsidering the spaces we live in, the communities we belong to, we can share essential stories about ourselves. Finding this empathy, this touchstone between all beings, is what my film is all about on the deepest level.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

My vision with Where We’re Going was to explore the meaning of home and family. The home of my company, the Bendix Building, is also home to many other workers and staff members. I wanted to depict the vivacity of the building in the film, but it was a bit of a challenge. When speaking to other workers in the building, sometimes there was a language barrier, and sometimes there was fear. Many were afraid to take off work, or didn’t know if it would be okay with their supervisor. Inviting non-dancers to partake in the film was all about dialogue and reaching a mutual understanding about what we were creating. As it turned out, they were incredible performers and brought a natural beauty to the film!

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

I probably made my hardest artistic choice when filming ESCAPE in Chile. The filming took place during a time of protests and strikes, and it was dangerous on the streets. Businesses were closed, there were fires and marches; it was a police state. We wanted to capture the lived reality of the situation. Due to safety precautions, the whole team was not able to go out on the streets. I made the choice to send out our cinematographer. It was a difficult choice because there was real danger involved. But, there was no other way to go about it. We wanted firsthand experience in telling that story and in giving it the justice it deserved. It was best done alone with him and his camera, and the film turned out to be a breathtaking work, one of our most acclaimed as a company.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

Making a film is all about collaboration. As the director, I collaborate with the editor, cinematographer, costume designer, and talent. To me, having a clear channel of communication between all of the artistic elements makes for a cohesive film, giving it a single strong voice formed by different perspectives. Films where the creatives take their own piece of the pie and do not communicate with the talent, directorial messaging, or the designers – those are my least favorite! You can tell everyone is competing within the film; it doesn’t have a strong vision. The reality of filmmaking is that it is built on teamwork. A film is like a snowball: it grows as it goes. There is no way the process can be fully predicted in the planning stages. It’s like when I do site-specific work. There are all of these beautiful accidents that happen along the way, and you have to make a choice whether or not to want to incorporate them. If the team is not communicating, the film can end up looking piecemeal. Sometimes you have to take things out and add things later. You want to work with people that are not afraid, that are not so married to their initial ideas. When filmmaking, you have to be flexible if you want to capture those serendipitous moments! Some things simply weren’t planned, but they exist, and you have to decide what you are going to do. At the end of the day, having a strong team is the best way to confront, adapt, and utilize these inevitable and wonderful surprises!

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

Considering the state of the world, I believe what audiences want more than ever is to connect. Whether that is to connect with others, to connect with stories, to connect with places, we as a society are seeking genuine connection.
I believe understanding what audiences want should never be a worry for the filmmaker, per se. I think understanding what audiences want is rather illuminating and always important to consider. Never a worry.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

Film Festivals have been a wonderful way for my company Heidi Duckler Dance to reach new audiences and break into new platforms of sharing our work. Festivals are a necessary way for artists across the world to share their work with each other and to partake in this continual inspiration loop. I enjoy Film Festivals because they expose me to new genres, art forms, and stories that I may have previously never had the chance to experience.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Why not both! I believe it was Picasso who said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”