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Breaking Free

There will be blood,” says Jacques Heim, founder and creative director behind Diavolo|Architecture in Motion, the hyperphysical dance company he began in 1992. But he wasn’t referring to the Daniel Day-Lewis saga directed by P.T. Anderson, but rather to his latest opus, “Existencia,” which has its world premiere at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (the Soraya), January 17 and 19, and involves an extreme, risk-taking movement vocabulary.

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

 Indeed, what was originally slated to be a 30-minute work commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the 6.7 earthquake that struck California State University Northridge, which was said to have been the worst natural disaster ever to hit a college campus in the States, “Existencia,” over a rehearsal period of ten, labor-intensive weeks, stretched into a 65-minute epic, the troupe’s first evening-length work in its repertory.

Other firsts with “Existencia” include an original score, performed live on stage by Grammy-winning percussionist Antonio Sánchez (“Birdman”), and his wife, Grammy-nominated vocalist Thana Alexa. The large cast is also new to the troupe that had performed internationally in countries including Japan, Germany and Australia, for 18 years before COVID struck: Usually a company of 10, for this work, Diavolo features three actors and 22 dancers, as well as Amelia Rudolph, founder of the Oakland-based vertical dance troupe Bandaloop, who performs an aerial solo in addition to co-choreographing a pair of airborne duets.

But what isn’t new to Diavolo is its use of massive structures: Parisian-born, L.A.-based Heim, by marrying his abiding love for dance with his passion for architecture, has, over the years, worked with outsized, custom-built structures that include an 800-pound aluminum cube with more configurations than Mr. Rubik’s (“Foreign Bodies”), a quirky spaceship-like dome (“Fluid Infinities”), and a two-and-a-half-ton aluminum wheel (“Humachina”).

The structures of “Existencia” are equally impressive, and are but a few of the reasons that Heim, 59, half-jokingly and half-seriously warns of blood being shed during rehearsals: While he’s a believer in sustainability, and is making use of four ramps from the troupe’s 2012 work, “Transit Space,” as well as a cage that can be rejiggered in mind and body-boggling ways, it’s the dozen freshly-minted aluminum towers that could be deemed dangerous.

Ranging in height from seven to fourteen feet and weighing between 200 and 400 pounds, the towers were designed by Adam Davis, fabricated by Philip Ginolfini, and constructed by Mike McClusky and Tina Trefethen. At times, these so-called “City Towers,” do, in fact, resemble an urban skyline —or a steely Stonehenge—and, as if a giant erector set, they’re also manipulated by the dancers in a myriad of ways, with performers catapulting off of and jumping across them, not to mention cocooning inside and also maneuvering them around the stage. 

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

It wouldn’t be far-fetched, then, to think that these towers should come with a warning sign—and Costco-sized boxes of Band-Aids! It’s also telling that Heim, who originally wanted 16 towers, acknowledged the danger those would have posed: “Thank god, I didn’t go there. That would have been too crazy.”

Ah, but then again, this is a Heim hallmark—dancing with danger, so to speak—with the creative force a large part of his DNA: After all, his grandfather, also named Jacques Heim (1899-1967), was a haute couturier who designed gowns for, among others, Edith Piaf, Mme. Charles de Gaulle and Mamie Eisenhower, and who is credited, with Louis Réard, for having invented the bikini. 

And it was the elder Heim who once allegedly declared, “The life of a couturier is a magnificent and continuous torture.”

Et voilà, this epigram can also, for the most part, describe his grandson’s work with Diavolo, as was evident when Heim rehearsed his dancers in the final two months of 2023 and in early 2024 in preparation for “Existencia.”

So, what began in June, 2022 as a seventh commission from the Soraya’s artistic and executive director, Thor Steingraber, to commemorate the Northridge quake, has fully blossomed into a work about resilience and the human condition. 

Said Steingraber: “This production is operatic. To do something with so many collaborative inputs—the designers, the set, the lights, multiple choreographers and a technical team of dozens—I was in opera for 20 years and one of the defining aspects is that it’s multi-disciplinary, so, instead of singers, here we have dancers, but in every other regard, it’s operatic in scale.”

And, as Heim and company have been also working with veterans since 2016 (the Frenchman was recognized by the Department of the Army with a medal for Meritorious Public Service after a performance of “S.O.S. —Signs of Strength,” in Houston in 2022), so, too, is “Existencia” a study in the capacity to withstand and recover from extreme hardship.

Explained Heim: “It’s about resilience, courage, sacrifice, solidarity, commitment. It’s [also] a little bit of an analysis on our own existence. When everything goes wrong—who are we? What are we made of? How can we create a community coming together every day? 

“Like a war, we’ve been attacked,” added the director, who also choreographed Las Vegas’ permanent show, “Kà,” “and the enemy—nature, in a way—is attacking us. The theme was aligned to what we’ve been doing, and, at the end of the day, it’s the work I’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

Making use of a script written by Heim and dramaturg France Nguyen-Vincent (she’s also director of Diavolo’s Veterans Project), and with her husband Jim Vincent as Associate Creative Director (the pair were once with the acclaimed Netherlands Dance Theatre), the team also looked to Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 bestselling book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, to shed more light on the subject. 

But how does a work get from the page to the stage? Heim admitted that he spends some three months alone, thinking about the piece from start to finish. “I go through a process of over 1000 hours, where I draw everything from the beginning of the piece to the end. I immerse myself. When I have this big vision, this is when France and Jim and I, we went step by step.”

Heim further explained that he knew he wanted actors to start the piece, and at one point would also use testimonials from people that Nguyen-Vincent would interview à la playwright Anna Deavere Smith, similar to the work Diavolo has done with the Veterans Project. 

In order to fully experience Diavolo, though, one needs to see the company in action, and, in this writer’s case, go behind the curtain, so to speak, to the troupe’s studio in the Brewery, located east of downtown L.A. On my first visit, the multi-national cast, aged 20-38 and includes dancers from Puerto Rico, Japan and Spain, as well as Mexico and Romania, Heim was running a scene that featured a pole as prop. 

But this was far from pole dancing at a strip club, because this particular pole was part of the cage, with a dozen dancers moving and manipulating it in the section known as “Breaking Free.” Heim, meanwhile, was calling out cues through a megaphone before gathering the dancers in a circle: “You fall, you roll, you fall, you roll. Every move, every gesture, has to have meaning. 

“This piece,” he continued, “will never, never, never be perfect. It means you’re creating in the moment.”

This moment also has the towers, which are not standing tall today, but are scattered about the floor, like so many hospital gurneys or coffins—a post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes type scenario, but sans the apes—with the dancers akin to being, well, baggage movers. Here, though, the performers are the cargo, precious cargo, and with each slithery move, each act of dancerly daredevilry, split-second timing is paramount. 

Nguyen-Vincent, in an aside to me, pointed out that while there are a lot of collaborators, “Jacques is as demanding as he cares. He creates this group expecting full-out, but giving full-out, too. We realize the kind of dedication that will have gone into actually making this happen [and] what we’re asking the dancers to do. 

“But that’s the challenge and beauty of creating,” she added. “The process has been extremely rich. We’re also aware how important our connections are, our trust. We’re lucky to be able to have that.”

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

So, too, does Leandro Glory Damasco, Jr., feel lucky to be part of “Existencia.” Now 35, he performed with Diavolo from 2012 until 2018, when he left the company to earn a master’s degree from UC Irvine. Currently teaching choreography and contemporary modern technique at Santa Clara University, Damasco returned for this magnum opus, one in which he’s choreographed the scenes, “Lost in the City” and “Symbiosis,” as well as having created through-line gestures and movements that became motifs. 

Damasco understands Heim’s process well. “Jacques is that type of director that doesn’t really know what he wants until he sees it. My job is to produce a bunch of things to help him find exactly what he wants. It’s almost like a numbers’ game, to help him see what he does like. He collaborates with me, and there’s a lot of modification until we [toss] out the unnecessary.” 

The next week the troupe continued work on “Breaking Free,” but this time the performers were manipulating the four ramps on casters. Connor Senning, who was with Diavolo from 2014 to 2019, is back as a performer and is rehearsal director; he also performs an aerial duet with Jarrett Yeary.

With Diavolo members in full OCD mode—Obsessive Compulsive Dance—sliding, gliding, running, jumping, flipping, flying and diving, I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s film, “Fitzcarraldo,” where the title character is determined to transport a steamship over a steep hill to access a rich rubber territory in the Amazon basin. 

In other words, Heim is, once again, having his dancers do the seemingly impossible. 

“There are 100 ways to do this,” he said, referring to a series of gambits the dancers are deploying, “but do not move like horses with blindfolds. Work together,” he bellowed, before adding, “by now, you should know where you are.” 

Yes, location is certainly part of Heim’s grand-scale thinking. But since Diavolo’s studio is not as big as the Soraya stage, where the dancers will, at times, inhabit the 1,700-seat venue’s orchestra pit, here, they can only fall to the ground before being rescued.

“That is the point of it,” declared Heim, “to see humans as heroes, being resilient, fighting for life. The audience watches [you] working together, being alive.” 

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

As part of the rescue, the script calls for 60-year old Amelia Rudolph, who stepped down from Bandaloop in 2020 and is the troupe’s director of special projects, to do an aerial solo. It was Jim Vincent who thought of adding aerial to “Existencia,” explaining: “After the shock and suspension, after a major crisis, we wonder, “What happens to time?” 

“The way our minds seduce and stretch time and distort reality in front of us,” he continued, “how can we physically represent that? How would we defy gravity? I began to consider aerial and said, ‘I think I have somebody.’”

 That somebody was Rudolph, and though she wasn’t in the studio the afternoon I visited, the artist spoke by phone about her solo. 

 “I don’t want to give away too much, but, generally, what happens is they pull my character out of the rubble. I would say I represent the appreciation of life that I have at this moment of just being barely alive, this whole beginning, when I’m crawling around, half-conscious, droopy, hardly there. 

“And then I realize I’m alive, and I feel gratitude through my body,” Rudolph continued. “And through movement, I celebrate that gratitude. It moves from very subtle and hardly aliveness into a real celebration of life.” 

Celebrating life is also core to “Existencia.” But from Fitzcarraldo-like determination and absolute belief in his ambitious vision, Heim is pulling no punches. On my next visit, the troupe is rehearsing “The Fall,” where the sound of collapsing buildings, car alarms, sirens, helicopters, news excerpts and screaming voices—“Ayudame!”—are heard. 

And the reason I am given ear plugs! 

Simon Greenberg is the video, sound effects and graphic designer, Luke Dennis is the audio engineer, and Jean-Yves Tessier is credited with the lighting design. Costumer David Tauster is on hand this day, his non-gender specific wardrobe hanging on a rack in earth tones, muted grays and blacks. 

Having covered Diavolo for nearly three decades, it’s safe to say I would know what to expect from the company that, among so many memorable performances, was also a 2017 finalist on the network TV show, America’s Got Talent. But this scene, which could also be dubbed, “Dancing with Towers”—features the “props” crashing down in quick succession, making the scare factor of “The Exorcist” seem tame by comparison. 

Heim, again on megaphone: “There is going to be so much fucking noise. By now,” he adds, “you should know where you are. And you need to know where everyone is at every moment.

“Remember,” he says to Mia Moraru, “it’s not a flight, it’s a fall.” 

Talk about operatic: As she plunges off of the remaining upright tower, I’m reminded of the final scene of “Tosca.” But instead of the heroine plummeting from a parapet to her death, Moraru leaps into the sturdy arms of six dancers.

Heim, in a full-throated sports announcer voice, proclaims: “She falls . . . and she lands!”  

The rehearsal, to say the least, has been intense, with the dancers now bouncing from one spot on the floor to another as they weave around the surreal aluminum landscape.

Calling for a lunch break, Heim and team convene in the office, where Vincent says, “There’s something incredibly disturbing about this piece, but in all the right ways,” which, in a profoundly visceral sense, is absolutely true. 

Musicians Sánchez and Alexa created the soundtrack for Jacques Heim's “Existencia.” Photograph by Jimmy Katz

Looking at a playback video, they’re also listening to a music track by Sánchez and Alexa. The impassioned percussion gives way to the measured cool of Alexa’s voice and, although it’s inherently jazz, a genre never before associated with Diavolo, it’s working beautifully.

Later that week, I speak with the couple by Zoom from their home in Barcelona, and ask Mexico City-born Sánchez about his and Alexa’s prior knowledge of Diavolo. 

“They were not on our radar,” confessed the musician whom the New York Times once hailed as, “a polyrhythmic ace attuned to the subtlest dynamic fluctuations.” 

“But we started checking them out, and were in awe at how versatile and multi-disciplinary they are. There is a lot of theatrics, and there’s dialogue. There are things you don’t [usually] see in dance companies, in a theater company, or in a circus, but you do see in Diavolo. They’re very interesting.”

“And complex,” added the Croatian-born vocalist and loop artist Alexa. “We’re coming from the perspective of voice and drums, and with physical movement, these are the three most primitive forms of expression. I’m using the voice as keyboards, and I’m going to be looping a lot, building harmonies. We’ve also pre-produced stuff,” she added, “because we wanted the music to reflect how big and epic the movement is.” 

And while Alexa, described by the New York Times as, “a jazz singer with a global perspective,” will have the luxury of moving about the stage—albeit cautiously and in the more serene moments of “Existencia” (yes, there are some)—Sánchez said that he’ll “have to be stationery for much of the piece, but there will be a few instances when I’ll have a drum with me and I can walk around with it.” 

The following week the company, clad in Touster’s costumes, is rehearsing, “Freedom,” the theme being there is, “no past, no future, just the present moment.” Heim, French to the core and not using a megaphone on this day, nevertheless thunders, “Libération,” as a single dancer climbs to the top of a ramp before hurling off of it. 

“That’s super cool,” says Heim. “Can we see this moment again?” 

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in rehearsal for “Existencia.” Photograph by George Simian

The director then confabs with Caribay Franke, Diavolo’s project and production manager, who is also performing in the piece. Meanwhile, the dancers are doing assorted push-ups, pirouettes and B-boy flips in order to stay warm before shedding most of their clothes. The metaphor of getting rid of old, disaster-ridden garments and encountering a new space, free of debris and shambled buildings, is one of relief, hope, new beginnings. 

Moving together in unison, the performers will eventually disappear, one by one, through trap doors, leaving a lone man, Jared Bogart, still clothed, watching the others as he peers into the abyss. A symbol of strength and stability, he partially disrobes, bundling his clothes with a rope and throwing it into the void that will be the orchestra pit at the Soraya. 

The denouement, “Rising,” will then feature the pit ascending to reveal the entire group: With their arms upraised and in near-pyramid formation akin to Alvin Ailey’s classic, “Revelations,” they are united; the journey is complete. And life, in all of its wild and wondrous forms, will continue, as will be evidenced at the Soraya in mid-January.

“Even though the theme [of] community coming together in the face of disaster sounds daunting,” Heim made clear on my last studio visit, “it’s kind of an uplifting piece. I believe that the theater, like church, temple, or any other area—art—is so important, because it brings people together. We’re such slaves to technology,” he added, “that we forget humanity. 

“Without humanity, we’re nothing, we’re done. So, I ask: ‘Could we come together a little more often, before waiting for another disaster?’” 

Then, reflecting on the deeper meaning of “Existencia,” Heim added: “Humans. We’re born the same, and we’re going to die the same. On the death bed, we’re all the same. Can we be kind to each other and put our differences and prejudices aside, but not only in the face of disaster? Why not be like that a little more during our lifetime? Just a little more. Just be better.” 

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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