Dance, opera and seascape: “Beyond the Waterfront” in San Pedro

by Vivian Buentiempo-Johnson, Lister Reviewer

Few things are as inviting as sitting by the water on a cool summer’s evening. You might even call it a siren’s call.

In this instance, the siren was Linda Grimes, representing the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District. She reached out to others in the constellation of representatives from the arts community, the community of San Pedro, the Port Of Los Angeles community, and the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre who offered a tantalizing vignette of what this collaboration might yield in Beyond the Waterfront.

Advertised as a “dance opera”, we were welcomed to Act One of a future, larger work. Two, tall, masted sailing ships docked at the berth became the stage, dance floor, props, and interactive choreographer. Abby and John Sher had commissioned a new musical score by Juhi Bansal, and in the approach the company has become known for, the choreography was “site specific”.

Sitting on the dock, the Sirens vocally beckoned to the sailors with their seductive voices and songs from an adjoining ship. Compromised acoustics on an open ship swaying on the water necessitated the use of amplification.

Jillian Meyers in Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre’s ‘Beyond the Waterfront’, 2017 — Photo by Mae Koo.

The dancers used the ropes, the mast, the boom, and as the executive director of the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, Captain Bruce Heyman, commented afterward, no one would normally have been allowed to do what they were doing on the ropes. As the boats were elevated beyond the use of stage and floor, physical elements of the boat were commandeered as partners. Climbing the ropes, dancers Ryan Walker Page, Jillian Meyers, Corina Kinnear, Isaac Huerta & Tess Hewlett had a rhythm and sway that had to be incorporated with their movements. Using the boom, there was a contrast to the fluid, limberness of the ropes and the hard wooden boom the dancers’ bodies wrapped around.

Three singers from LA Opera sang well and expressively: soprano Jamie Chamberlin, soprano Lisa Eden and mezzo Melissa Treinkman. However, there was a range of contrast to the voices that did not always serve the ensemble well. Perhaps it would have been less noticeable without the amplification but in this arena, the larger voices communicated more effectively with the lack of any natural acoustic support. It was also an unfortunate omission that the instrumentalists, pianist, cellist and violinist, who had been recorded in advance, were not listed on the program. One would hope for a work of this scope, live musicians would be a part of the opera.

This is a work in progress, of course, and with a location-focused project such as this, there is often an evident desire to incorporate many elements and members from the nearby community. The Boys and Girls’ Club of the Los Angeles Harbor displayed maritime artwork in the entrance to the berth. Young singers from their music program began by singing Italian arias from the 18th century, and expanded to large and small ensembles singing progressively more contemporary works, including a popular song by Bananarama.

It was an impressive collaboration between AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles, who provided the site; the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, who provided the ships with all the attendant safety protocol and required ship instruction; LA Opera, who provided the aforementioned soloists; and the Boys and Girls’ Club, who provided community involvement; and Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, who created the dance work with their artistic vision and creativity.

With any interdisciplinary work, the challenge lies in how to use another visual or performing metier that is already an integrated component of the developed work. Ms. Duckler has a good grasp of the whole, and we should all look forward to see how this fleshes out.

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