When you discover that French-born Artistic Director and self-proclaimed rebel-with-a-cause Jacques Heim earned his early creds as a street performer in Paris, dancing with friends on cars and in the subway in what sounds like a très-cool takeoff on the movie Fame, the origin of the avant-garde architectural aesthetic that drives his Los Angeles–based dance company, Diavolo, becomes immediately clear.
An early non-conformist who admits he was kicked out of several schools as a youth, Heim stayed true to himself, emigrated to America, and found a home in the dance department at Middlebury College, Vermont ,where he earned a BFA in Theater, Dance and Film and where also, he discovered, “it didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand my accent!” Speaking by cell from Holland in an interview conducted for the 2012 California premiere of “Transit Space” he continued, “It was only years later that I realized my fascination with architecture came from the streets of Paris. One was rebelling against schools and the rules of Paris. I was kicked out of six schools; it was too rigid, too exclusive. So I did a lot of performing in the streets and later realized I was connecting with the environment; I realized how fragile we are, how powerful the environment is, yet also how powerful we are.” It was at Middlebury that he fell in love with the power of movement and California- where he received an MFA in Choreography from the California Institute for the Arts- where he began to experiment with space, architectural structure, and their effects on movement. “That’s how it started,” he says.
Heim formed Diavolo ( www.diavolo.org )in 1992 and the company has been astounding audiences since with its blend of dance, drama, gymnastics and athletics spiced by surrealistic sets and unusual structures. Its 14 multi-talented performers tackle an array of works that “explore challenges and relationships.”
Diavolo brings “Transit Space” to Irvine Barclay Theatre ( www.thebarclay.org ) this weekend as part of two mixed repertory programs that also include “D2R,” “Door,” “Bench,” “Humachina,” and “Trajectoire.”
The piece originated at Penn State University, where the company was in residence, and grew out of a grant the campus had received, the theme of which was “the secret life of public spaces.” Inspired by the 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” the new work is both edgy and urban, culling Diavolo’s trademark intensity, energy and connectivity to create an abstract take on the skateboarders’ world.
The title of the piece grew out of an intensive workshop at Penn State. The company had invited students from the Dance, Architecture, and Landscape Architecture departments to participate. Using skateboard ramps, students experimented with movement and afterwards discussed what they had seen and experienced. They came up with the title “Transit Space,” meaning the space between the physical and the mental. Says Heim: “In our life we are always in transit, whether physically or mentally, and we have to navigate between them. Skateboarders are, too- they’re always looking ahead to the next, higher ramp.”
“I was always fascinated with skateboard ramps and parks and inspired by skateboard movement,” he says. “A long time ago I saw a documentary about a group of friends, all a bit rebellious. Their life was all about skateboarding, it was all ‘how can we go further.’ As soon as the group was together, there was strength and power, but individually not. “Transit Space” began to emerge about a group of people who can function together, who belong with one another and are trying to connect. It is not about skateboarding but about the philosophy behind it.”
In creating the piece, the company worked with 17- and 18-year-olds. The group spoke about skateboarding and the reputation it has for “disturbing the peace.” On the contrary, says Heim, “I would say they are very much bringing peace within themselves.” He asked one, “Do you worry you will get hurt?” The youngster replied, “If you worry about everything that is going to happen, you cannot move forward in life.”
So, notes Heim, “They are very much Zen, at peace. There is a looseness of movement that as adults we forget about. They just have to be completely relaxed and at one with the board. With “Transit Space” it’s about the unit, and one individual connects with the group. To be able to function at peace with himself, to go further in life, he needs the group.”
As is usual with Heim’s artistic process, he brought in other artists to collaborate on the piece. Steve Connell, a spoken-word artist, wrote all the text, which has been recorded and intertwined with a musical score by Paul James Prendergast. Physical-interactive designers David and Valeria Beaudry created sensors that are placed in the dancers costumes; when the dancers touch their costumes at certain points, the text begins. Additionally, sensors under the skateboard-like props allow the music to start when the performers jump on. This gives a sense of immediacy that is important to Heim: “In one scene of freeways, the dancers go up ramps and there’s the sounds of cars. The audience doesn’t know about the sensors—and it’s not about the audience knowing—the point is the immediate response. A board operator will not be able to move with the speed of the dancers. Immediate response, immediate interactive movement and sound, is more real.”
Calling himself “the most dyslexic and un-flexible artistic director you will ever meet,” Heim says he loves the process of collaborating with his dancers. When he’s working with them, he says, he’s “extracting their minds.” For “Transit Space” he sent his performers home with homework: to deconstruct skateboard movement and explore other movement that used the imagery of Connell’s words, “which are layers of metaphors for connection, disconnection, going away, freeways, and getting lost not only physically but mentally.”
The piece fuses everyday movement with ballet, modern dance, hip-hop, and martial arts. Added in, says Heim, are his favorite themes of chaos, borders, danger, survival, love, faith, deconstruction, and reconstruction. “That’s the company in a nutshell!”
“I am driven by passion,” says Heim. “When we watch rehearsal, I drive my dancers crazy. It’s not anger, it is passion, and I will push them physically and mentally until they cannot stand it, and then I can touch them, find their passion. Then they feel more like gladiators or heroes. They are ready to climb Everest, they are ready to fly.”
He says his efforts are not so much about the work on stage but about the dancers respecting one another, pushing one another. “It’s funny how some dance companies look at us, wondering if what we do is dance because our work is very abstract, very visual,” he says. “You can just feel the wow factor. For me it is a load of crap. For me, going to the supermarket and watching carts in the aisles is a form of dance.”
Diavolo performs at 8 p.m. on May 16th & 17th, 2014 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine CA 92612. For tickets and information please go to http://www.thebarclay.org or call (949)854-4646.
Program A – May 16th: Transit Space/ D2R/ Door/ Bench/ Humachina
Program B – May 17th: Transit Space / Trajectoire
A version of this article originally appeared on www.artsinla.com.