Jacques Heim has been obsessed with geometric shapes for years. After founding the risk-intensive, hyper-physical dance troupe DIAVOLO | Architecture in Motion™ in Los Angeles in 1992, Paris-born Heim translated that passion into full-blown, custom-designed stage sets. Included are a 5,000-pound, 16-foot rotating aluminum wheel (“Humachina”), a large, scary-looking vertical pegboard that could serve as the centerpiece at an S&M soiree (“D2R”), and a 14-by-17 foot rocking boat (“Trajectoire”).
A decade ago, Chad Smith, currently the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, commissioned a trilogy from Heim, with the first work, “Foreign Bodies,” premiering in 2007 at the Hollywood Bowl to original music composed and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, then the orchestra’s music director.
That work, which the Los Angeles Times described as “one of those rare events that defines the art of this city,” was followed by 2010’s “Fearful Symmetries” set to John Adams’s score of the same name, conducted by Bramwell Tovey. The trilogy concluded in 2013 with “Fluid Infinities,” performed to Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, again conducted by Tovey at the iconic venue.
When performed separately each opus has proven a huge hit. But the trilogy had never before been staged in its entirety in one evening until last year at Wolfsburg, Germany’s prestigious Movimentos Festival. A world premiere, the three works were performed to rapturous standing ovations, but were accompanied by taped music.
Now, eight years after “Foreign Bodies” first blew the figurative roof off of the Hollywood Bowl, the 10-member troupe gives the North American premiere of “L’Espace du Temps” (“The Space of Time”) at the Valley Performing Arts Center, September 19-20. Accompanied by New West Symphony and conducted by wild Up’s founder and music director, Christopher Rountree, “L’Espace” is being produced by Thor Steingraber, who took the helm as V.P.A.C.’s executive director in 2014.
Heim, 51, who earned a master’s degree in choreography from the California Institute for the Arts, and rehearses his dancers at Diavolo’s 6,000-square-foot studio east of downtown L.A., recalled the initial meeting with staff members of the L.A. Philharmonic:
“I never expected, ever, being in L.A., to have the L.A. Phil wanting to work with us. ‘Are you sure they said Diavolo?’ I asked my agent.”
But Heim, who happened upon some children’s blocks the month before in an elementary classroom-cum-dressing room in a Colorado school complex where the troupe was performing, had, serendipitously, brought the blocks with him to the meeting.
“Each block was a pyramid and together they created a cube,” explained a ponytailed Heim, his endearing French accent still very much in evidence, “and I started, literally, showing the beginning of the piece and the end of the piece to Chad and the others in the room.
“There was such a moment of silence,” added Heim, grandson of the late Jacques Heim, a couturier who co-invented the bikini and designed gowns for, among others, Edith Piaf and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, “then they said, ‘This is beautiful, this is fantastic.’ And that’s how “L’Espace du Temps” started.”
Indeed, what began with those kiddie blocks a decade ago has evolved into something astounding, with the V.P.A.C. performances promising to be the jaw-dropping, cultural event of the season.
“It’s an amazing privilege and a great opportunity that Thor has given us,” exclaimed Heim, whose troupe has been touring internationally for 17 years. “Thor is the mastermind and ringleader of this incredible, ambitious project. Without his passion and determination this would never have happened.”
Heim also said that the collaboration between Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Diavolo, has been career-altering for him. “Not only because we were working with one of the most amazing orchestras in the world—that’s an honor by itself—but because it pushed me.
“That project changed the way Diavolo is creating pieces and forced me to grow as an artist,” recalled Heim. “Before I was just a French little punk saying, ‘Let’s build some cool structures.’ I was not doing research or homework or any real drawings. I was building the structure, putting it in our warehouse and only then would I go to figure it out. That doesn’t cut it.
“In a way,” Heim added, “the L.A. Phil was saying, ‘When you work with the L.A. Phil, you need to reach a different standard. Your pieces have to be as exquisite as the L.A. Phil.’”
The director, who also choreographed Cirque du Soleil’s “KÀ” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which opened in 2006, admitted being nervous about the project. “It was as if I was the little boy in French school who didn’t do his homework.”
That homework, however, has resulted in a well-oiled machine, one that not only resonates globally but has also woven itself into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles.
Explained Steingraber, who became aware of Diavolo in 2010 and, in 2012, when he was vice president of programming for the Music Center, commissioned the troupe for the opening of downtown L.A.’s, Grand Park.
“When I see Diavolo, I see L.A.,” said Steingraber. “I see an innovative, fresh, boundary-bending, adaptable company that, although it largely considers itself and would be considered a dance company, is actually more than that and is different than that. And that’s exactly what makes it in my eyes, a very L.A. company.”
Steingraber said he approached Heim with the idea of mounting the trilogy at V.P.A.C. immediately following the success at Movimentos.
“I’m highly motivated and committed to supporting the work of L.A.-based artists, and to provide them opportunity to explore new dimensions in their work. Once Diavolo had committed to performing the full trilogy at V.P.A.C., I set out on a mission to secure the live music,” added Steingraber, who is also co-commissioning, “Passengers,” a new Diavolo work that premieres next May and is part one of a larger piece, “L.O.S.T. (Losing One’s Self Temporarily).”
Steingraber said it took nearly 10 months to find both New West Symphony and Rountree, and to also secure permission from Salonen to do an orchestral reduction of “Foreign Bodies,” initially composed in 2001.
Because the original score calls for some 80 plus orchestra members, Rountree made a re-orchestration, putting 57 players in the pit. Choreographic changes were also made by Diavolo dancer/choreographer Leandro Glory Damasco, Jr.
Rountree, 32, said the arrangement was approved by Salonen, who, the conductor pointed out, “is thrilled with what Diavolo is doing with it. In fact,” added Rountree, “Esa-Pekka wants this piece played as much as possible, and it could even be used as a chamber orchestra version in the future.”
The Grammy-nominated Salonen, composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, is also currently principal conductor and artistic advisor for London Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as conductor laureate for the L.A. Phil. He once said that he originally imagined “Foreign Bodies” as, well, a “ballet.”
Of course, the L.A. Phil could never have visualized that the beginning of the trilogy, a three-movement, 20-minute work, would have the Diavolo dancers masterfully reconfiguring an 800-pound, 7-by-12 foot aluminum cube designed and engineered by a team headed by Tina Trefethen and Mike McCluskey of the Torrance-based auto restoration and metal fabrication firm, McCluskey Ltd.
And while Diavolo holds the distinction of being the first dance troupe to choreograph to Salonen’s “Foreign Bodies,” Royal Ballet resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, also used the score to make a work for his own company, Random Dance, in 2010.
“Whenever you add any theater element to music,” explained Rountree, who conducts wild Up at L.A.’s Colburn School next month, and will guest conduct both the Chicago Symphony and Atlanta Opera in November, “it’s based on being collaborators.
“It’s the first time Jacques and I met, but we really became collaborators. Energies meet one another and mingle, and I’m grateful for that.”
As for Diavolo dancers, energies must also be nearly superhuman, with Heim, who has been approached by New York producers to direct an arena show of “Transformers,” often referring to his performers as gladiators. In fact, Heim said, when recruiting dancers, he looks for something beyond physicality.
“To be a dancer in Diavolo, you have to be a special breed. There’s a typical one—beautiful ones that do the modern dance—then there’s the other kind that goes beyond. They have a mental strength that no others have,” added Heim, “and the mental strength becomes eventually physical strength.
“A long time ago someone said to me, ‘Your dancers look really sexy.’ I didn’t get it, but what I realized [was that] when you watch action films, when you see men and women pushing their own physical limits, there’s something really sexy about it. They become heroes. They are bigger than life.
“I got that,” added Heim. “I watch my dancers on stage and when they push their own physical limits and mental strengths, that is absolutely outrageous.”
Particularly daunting is part two of the trilogy, Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries.” Featuring four aluminum and wood columns, and two U-shaped pieces that are deconstructed and rearranged by the dancers, often atop a three-part, two-and-a-half-ton motorized “field” that rises and tilts toward the audience at a 17-degree angle, the work is a rollicking 28 minutes. With shifting tableaux resembling urban dwellings, Stonehenge, and even a zany scene from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, “Symmetries” is like an E-ticket ride … on steroids.
Damasco, Jr., who has been with Diavolo for four seasons, said that dancing with the troupe is “a matter of life and death. Life because it’s the single thing that makes me feel most alive, and death, because I would die for this passion of dance.
“It’s not easy what we do in Diavolo,” added the 27-year old. “It’s an aesthetic that can be very dangerous, and dancing on larger-than-life structures forces you to be like a soldier. Knowing the impact it has on our bodies, we fight through this war because we problem solve as we perform, and we all have the same mindset that we’ll be there for each other.”
According to Heim, changing the name from Diavolo Dance Theater to DIAVOLO | Architecture in Motion™, came about organically some five years ago.
“Our work has nothing to do with Streb [Extreme Action Company], or the circus world. That’s the biggest confusion,” said Heim. “I took an analysis of what I was doing and thought, ‘We have to reinvent ourselves.’
“Even if others use structures, our creative process is completely different. The way we incorporate the structures, they become the eleventh dancer on stage. It’s architecture in motion—end of story.
“When I look into my dancers,” continued Heim, “they have to be a well-rounded performer that has a great ballet background, modern background, a little bit of gymnastic or some other sense of movement —martial arts, a little hip-hop. That always helps.”
That said, the most dancerly work of “L’Espace” is its finale, “Fluid Infinities,” which could be likened to a terpsichorean action painting. Originally made with assistance from associate choreographer Monica Campbell, the work has a central structure that resembles an enormous simian brain, a fractured honeycomb or some kind of alien starship pocked with holes.
Designed by architect Adam Davis and built once again by McCluskey Ltd., the dome weighs 1,600 pounds and also features a 12-by-3 foot Plexiglas tube not unlike that of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transportation capsule.
The dancers, moving to the stirring sounds of Glass’ ever-modulating strings, execute thrilling duets, trios and Rockettes-like unisons on a one-ton stainless steel “deck.”
However one looks at it, the prop still involves risk for the indefatigable, fearless performers. And, like the first two works of the trilogy, “Infinities” also poses some rather lofty questions.
“This is a meditation about where do we come from,” said Heim, “where are we going, what is our true destiny? At the end of the day, should these questions even be answered?
“The beauty of life,” the director noted, “is we don’t have all the answers. And although my dancers and I are sometimes exhausted mentally and physically, there’s something special about what we do.”
DIAVOLO | Architecture in Motion™ presents “L’Espace du Temps” at Valley Performing Arts Center, California, September 19-20, 2015