Central Wholesale Market, a sprawling bazaar in Los Angeles’ industrial core, sources produce for many of the city’s trendiest restaurants. Inside low-slung concrete structures, hundreds of vendors, many of them immigrants, hawk fresh ingredients from stalls and box trucks before sunrise, every day. Few diners know it exists, and it’s an unlikely setting for dance, but choreographer Heidi Duckler, who the LA Times calls the “reigning queen of site-specific performance art,” chose it as the location for Night Market, her multidisciplinary celebration of the laborers who make LA tick.
Heidi Duckler Dance Theater is known for staging pieces in extraordinary locations. “[The market] is very much the heart and soul of Los Angeles, and I thought, 'What would happen if artists could use the space when the vendors aren’t there? What if artists and vendors shared their stories?’” Duckler tells The Creators Project. The one-night-only premiere of Night Market took place earlier this summer, but Duckler is in talks to host subsequent iterations.
The production is the byproduct of nearly a year of ethnographic research and interviews with vendors and staff. Duckler recruited six local artists to synthesize the merchants’ stories into multidisciplinary works. “In this way, we’re not occupying their space when they’re absent,” she says. “We’re talking, sharing, and seeing what happens when we’re inspired by each other.”
The six artists—Zachary Aronson, Grace Hwang, Scarlett Kim, Jameelah Nuriddin, Christopher Reynolds, and Frank Valdez—found unique ways to reflect their subject’s heritage. “Jameelah, for example, is a weaver, and we matched her with a vendor who sells products from Africa,” Duckler says. “She used the ramp of his store to create a huge loom, and he was there the whole night, weaving with her. They weren’t only weaving thread, they were weaving stories and talking. It was beautiful.”
The market is a microcosm of LA’s diversity: lifelong Angelenos work alongside merchants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Nuriddin’s vendor is just one of the inspiring Americans working at Central Wholesale who, through grit and gumption, managed to carve a life for himself in the US. “Charles is an American success story,” she says. “He immigrated from Ghana, and started at his store as an employee, worked his way up to manager, and recently became owner of the store. That’s an American Dream story.”
For other artists, the commission for Night Market proved personal. “My family also has connections to the wholesale produce industry in LA,” Hwang says. “I’ve been doing a lot of research on my family history and LA history. So when the Night Market opportunity came up, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is such an intersection of what I’m currently investigating.’ I interviewed my dad, and he told me a story about how from 1972 to 1976, he was waking up at 12:30 AM to work at the produce market till 12:30 PM, and then going to classes at Cal State.” For her installation, Hwang projected timelines contrasting the history of immigrant labor at LA wholesale produce markets with her dad’s account of a typical night shift.
Like an homage to the breadth of produce peddled each morning, the performances at Night Market were extremely varied. The evening also featured painting, wood burning, film, a dance in the back of three box trucks, and a performance piece featuring Duckler grilling a steak.
“It was a remarkable event, because it allowed artists to bring their individual installations together and create this story as a whole. That’s artistry, whether you’re mixing different kinds of paint to make a story or curating different installations,” Nuriddin says. “That’s what I think art is all about. Having an excuse to come together to create something bigger. It was a really beautiful experience, truly.”