At the grand entrance to the Ambassador Hotel, under the now-sagging Cocoanut Grove awning, a driver inspects his decrepit limo. Slamming the hood, he cues a lively cha-cha as a starlet and her three escorts swiftly emerge from the limo to romp in, around, and over it, car parts soon used as claves to accent the Latin rhythms. It's among the better scenes in Collage Dance Theatre's newest site-specific work: a part voyeuristic, part interactive exploration of the historic hotel that is threatened with demolition to make room for a new school.
We first gather around the hotel's empty swimming pool, at the bottom of which a violinist plays jazz standards and Brahms waltzes, accompanied by a drummer playing a floor tom that hangs around her neck. A credit to those who conceived and created the evening—Heidi Duckler, Dan Evans, and Merridawn Duckler—it takes almost no time for us to recognize the work's themes: ghosts of past, present, and future; the melancholy of decay; an insider's view of Hollywood's very nearness.
We stroll hallways lined with window cases, in which hands caress gaudy jewels or brush away cobwebs, and where greasers cavort in the headshot-lined barbershop. And although there's no tour through the very site of RFK's assassination, we get blood as a pulsating dancer races and break-dances through a small red cubicle.
The evening becomes highly interactive in the hotel's cozily boothed coffee shop when the audience becomes movie extras about to face the casting process. Here the apparently willing are selected to lead vocal exercises or allow our clothing to be shown off as exemplary. Rest assured, there are ways to fade into the deep background here; the 14 actors playing makeup artists, vocal coaches, casting directors, and the like gravitate toward the hams in the crowd.
The longest of the numbers—fortunately the one in which the audience is seated—finds us as the entertainment and 10 dancers as the disco-going guests in the legendary Cocoanut Grove. The dancers morph into futuristic machinery, emerging from the industrial spools that were their club tables, turning the spools to form the giant wheels that will soon flatten the hotel. The dancing doesn't break any new ground, though, instead relying on disappointingly generalized "modern dance" for far too long. And at other times the work seems to lose focus. A couple in old-fashioned swimwear—or postmodern dancewear?—swirl around the empty swimming pool in billowing movements; yet despite peering over the fence at the world-famous Ambassador Hotel, they never react to it. Pajama-clad dancers frolic to a weak ending in the lobby under sparkling crystal chandeliers hanging from peeling plaster.
But this work is more than solely theatre, or dance, or a mere tour. What it lacks in narrative structure it makes up for in moodiness, purposefulness, and a quirky sense of fun. And, like its voyeuristic predecessor Tamara, it deserves to be seen—at least once.
"Sleeping With the Ambassador," presented by Collage Dance Theatre at the Ambassador Hotel, 3400 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Fri.-Sun. 8 p.m. May 15-June 15. $20-30. (323) 655-8587.