Encore for South LA’s Dunbar Hotel

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre helps revive a historic jazz landmark on Central Avenue.


Marisa Labog and Joe Schenck rehearse on the balcony in the lobby of Dunbar Village. | Christina Campodonico


By day, a “For Lease” sign hangs in the window of the Dunbar Hotel’s empty storefront on Central Avenue, but on Saturday night this barren room came to life as dancers from the Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre kicked up dust from the concrete floor, grabbed onto the room’s barred windows and clung to its steel columns, captivating a crowd of dance-lovers and community leaders who descended upon the historic South Los Angeles landmark to see “Dancing at Dunbar.”

Hours earlier, at 5 p.m., the troupe previewed its choreography for a handful of residents living at Dunbar Village, the affordable housing development on site with the Dunbar Hotel.

An air of easy comfort pervaded the lobby. Some audience members relaxed in large leather armchairs, nibbling on fruit and cookies. Others milled in and out of the lobby with their bikes and grocery bags, pausing briefly to look up at dancers Marisa Labor and Joe Schenck as they wrapped themselves around columns and bannisters on the second-level balcony overhead.

The Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue. | Christina Campodonico

The Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue. | Christina Campodonico

The Dunbar Hotel has long been a centerpiece of Los Angeles’ performing arts history—jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were among the hotel’s most famous visitors during its 1920s heyday. But Heidi Duckler’s site-specific rehearsal process leading up to its September 6 performance was initially met with some hesitation.

See also from Intersections: The Dunbar Hotel takes a step toward renovation

“I think [the residents], at first, were maybe tentative about who we were and why were here, what we were doing,” said Duckler, who is the company’s founder and artistic director. “And now…we’re friends. ”

This collegial atmosphere was evident before and between performances as dancers warmed up in the lobby’s adjoining rec room while residents played billiards or watched the USC-Stanford football game on a big screen TV. Becoming part of a community is in the DNA of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre, which creates site and community specific choreography by rehearsing on-site for short windows of time—anywhere from a few weeks to a single day.

“We only rehearse on site. We become tenants. And I think there’s a certain pride in our being housed here.” said Duckler. “It’s a wonderful kind of coexistence.”

Singer Tatiana Williams sings lyrics to Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy," while dancer Teresa Barcelo performs in the courtyard of Dunbar Village. | Christina Campodonico

Singer Tatiana Williams sings lyrics to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” while dancer Teresa Barcelo performs in the courtyard of Dunbar Village. | Christina Campodonico

Bessie Smith, a retiree and resident of Dunbar Village whose courtyard balcony became the site of a duet by dancers Teresa Barcelo and Wilfried Souly, is one example of that coexistence with the company.

“They had asked my permission and I told them, ‘Help yourself,’” said Smith, who proudly shares her name with the legendary Empress of Blues. “It didn’t bother me. I think I’m special.”

Smith also found special meaning in singer Tatiana William’s riffs on lines from Sympathy, a poem by the hotel’s namesake, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

For Smith, the lyrics, “I know why the caged bird flies,” brought to mind Maya Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“I could feel my insides getting really emotional,” she said.

For resident Glendora Parks-Anderson, a surgical assistant trainee, the company’s performance left a lasting impression of hope.

Dancer Wilfried Souly performs in the Dunbar Village's unoccupied storefront. | Christina Campodonico

Dancer Wilfried Souly performs in the Dunbar Village’s unoccupied storefront. | Christina Campodonico

“I hold a special place about that in my heart, because we’re the residents here and they sought the time to share with us the talents of the people that were dancing,” said Parks-Anderson. “I pray that they come back to us again.”

Regardless of whether Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre will perform again at the Dunbar Hotel, for many dancers, the company’s residency from August 13 to September 6 was all too short.

“I feel like [the Dunbar] is so rich with history,” said Schenck, the dancer who had twisted ‘round its columns. “I just feel like there’s so much more that we can do in here.”

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