Choreographer Heidi Duckler
sets her work in unexpected locations: laundromats, city hall buildings, on three-story-tall scaffolding. For Something to Declare
, she finds herself in Portland’s historic Custom House. While she stays true to her mission of turning an ordinary space into a canvas for her art, it feeels like a missed opportunity. Mundane choreography doesn’t live up to the setting, and the message behind it all remains unclear.
Entering, you’re greeted by a series of very strange requests. First I’m told to fill out a U.S. Customs Declaration form, asking if I have any fruit in my possession or if I have been around livestock within the last 10 days. A member of the ticketing staff informs me I need a background check, holding up an old painting and examining my profile. Once I pick up my program—designed to look like a passport—the theme grows increasingly clear. This Custom House, of course, was originally a center for trade, taxation and exchange. My confusion briefly dissipates and the performance begins.
After we take our seats in the courtyard, Duckler bids us to follow her into the building. She tells the first half of the show will take place in the stairwell and we can either “take a journey” up the staircase with the dancers or stay behind and observe. Suddenly, an operatically piercing voice comes from the doors behind us and the singer walks in very slowly, looking almost apparitional. As she makes her way up the stairwell, her crystal clear voice echoes and resonates upward, pulling our gazes and curiosity in the same direction. It’s eerie, beautiful and perplexing all at once. Duckler starts up the stairs and the audience apprehensively follows until we see the dancers two flights above us, their limbs appearing and disappearing through the gaps in the banisters.
As we make our way up and the dancers their way down, we eventually meet in the middle. Wearing matching blue T-shirts, gray slacks and casual shoes, the seven dancers look as if they’ve just walked in from the street. And much of their movement is equally pedestrian. Sliding and walking in slow motion down banisters, they sometimes stop to pose in the windowsills. But the breathtaking architectural backdrop ultimately overwhelms them: The dancers are too few and the choreography not sufficiently dynamic. At the bottom of the stairs, the dancers fall dramatically to the floor as if they’ve been shot.
The second act takes place outside in the courtyard with traditional seating. A violinist takes the place of the vocalist, but the tone remains mysterious. The dancers’ silhouettes appear in the windows at the top of the building, and they drag their hands down the glass as if in a horror film. When they finally make their way out to the courtyard, I find myself aggravated by the slow-moving choreography. Sitting next to each other on a staircase, a woman slowly—painfully slowly—inches closer to a man, as three other men repeatedly walk in and out of the doors behind them. Dancers spend much of the time simply walking around slowly or sitting still. Towards the end, things pick up: There’s graceful partnerwork on the stairs and the dancers start to take advantage of their surroundings, hanging from light fixtures, swinging in and out of windows and scaling across walls. To end the show, all of the dancers, for the first time, dance in sync on the stairs for the most energetic moment of the night. But all too soon, the choreography becomes static again and the dancers walk inside the building. Is the performance over?
With such an exquisite location, Something to Declare has the potential to be remarkable. Duckler, admirably, is willing to take risks and surprise her audience, but without more opportunity for her dancers to display their talents, this work falls short.