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Diavolo—Architecture in Motion in “S.O.S—Signs of Strength” with US Army Veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

Joining Forces

Jacques Heim on his new project with military veterans, “S.O.S—Signs of Strength”

When Jacques Heim, who founded DIAVOLO | Architecture in Motion™, in Los Angeles in 1992, he married his abiding love for dance with his passion for architecture. In the process, Diavolo became one of L.A.’s pre-eminent dance companies, one that also toured internationally for some two decades. But the global pandemic changed the ways in which all choreographers, dancers, artistic directors and presenters thought about dance, and Heim, born in Paris in 1964, was no exception. 

But not to worry: For its legions of fans—and there are many—especially after the troupe known for its risk-intensive, hyper-physical performances, was a 2017 finalist on the network television show, America’s Got Talent, has not abandoned any of its myriad props. Indeed, immediately recognizable for its humongous, custom-built sets that include a two-and-a-half-ton aluminum wheel (“Humachina”) and an 800-pound cube with more configurations than Mr. Rubik’s (“Foreign Bodies,” the first part of a trilogy known as “L’Espace du Temps”), Diavolo—and Heim —have instead been, well, re-configuring their own performances and ways of working.

In 2020, the company made its first foray into film, This Is Me: Letters from the Front Lines, the troupe’s fourth collaboration with The Soraya and commissioned by Executive Director Thor Steingraber. Diavolo, again pushing boundaries, made use of some of its existing structures while working with veterans and first responders, creating an audacious, über-timely, and visceral piece of art.

Now, again working with a cast of military veterans and dancers, Diavolo is presenting the world premiere of “S.O.S.—Signs of Strength,” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, March 18-19. In its belated, but most welcome debut, as the company had been slated to perform at the venue in May, 2020, Diavolo is also offering one of its most recognizable pieces, “Trajectoire.”

“Trajectoire” by Diavolo—Architecture in Motion. Photograph by Randall Bass

First seen in 1999 and having been tweaked over the years, the work makes use of a 14-by-17-foot-long, continuously rocking boat and features breathtaking swan dive leaps, among other gravity-defying moves in an astonishing terpsichorean tour de force. It’s something that could easily be dropped into a Cirque du Soleil show, which Heim understands all too well, having choreographed that organization’s permanent Las Vegas show, “KÀ,” which recently re-opened following a prolonged Covid shutdown.

But it’s Heim’s commitment to working with military personnel that’s closest to his heart. In 2016, the company began the Veterans Project (founded by then former executive director Jennifer Cheng), employing its signature movement vocabulary as a tool to help restore veterans’ physical, mental and emotional strengths through workshops and public performances all around the country. A pair of dances resulted—“Ibuku” and “A Long Journey Home”—which were seen on Veteran’s Day, 2017, as part of the Soraya’s day-long, 25th anniversary celebration of Diavolo.

Ah, for the return of pre-pandemic normalcy! But in a world that is irrevocably changed, Heim, who earned a master’s degree in choreography from the California Institute for the Arts and rehearses his company at Diavolo’s 6,000 square-foot studio in the Brewery, east of downtown, remains, despite acknowledging that these are still difficult times, an optimist. I recently spoke with the Frenchman, his English, as ever, a tad fractured, on a myriad of topics, his vision, dedication and boundless energy in the service of art nothing less than a revelation.

First of all, how did you fare during Covid and how did Diavolo manage to survive—physically, monetarily, socially, mentally?

Thank god for the Côtes du Rhône, a beautiful burgundy wine from France; a few glasses and you’re back on track. Seriously, at the beginning, like everyone else, I thought, “I cannot panic.” But for some reason, I felt this is going to be here for a long, long time and this is a new thing, a new day, a new dawn, a new life.

So, after finishing to panic, which lasted a few weeks, I thought, “How does one reinvent himself?” I knew that live performance was never going to be the same, and if they say it will, they have no idea. The aspect of touring in the U.S. is not the same for Diavolo. I can only speak about myself, but it was complex to tour before the pandemic, not only organizationally and financially, but now it’s even more of a giant issue.

We have to think if we even want to tour. How do we tour? What do we tour? Traveling with an 18-wheeler truck full of giant structures is complex, complicated and not financially solid. I’m now thinking more [that] if we want to tour, it cannot be 21 cities, back and forth, packing the truck, traveling in the middle of the night, only to go to the next theater. That’s not going to happen.

So, how did we survive? We did a lot of Zoom. At first, Zoom, I thought, “Was it a medication, a camera special lens or like a special voyeurism, a kinky kind of show?” I’m a complete idiot in technology, but after I got started to Zoombah with everybody, I [realized] I could Zoombah with the entire world. To be able to connect with people you weren’t able to connect with before, this was amazing.

We continued our Veterans workshops and we did movement workshops for dancers—not only dancers living in L.A., but all over the country and in different parts of the world. People were paying us to do a workshop.

Jacques Heim at work with Diavolo—Architecture in Motion. Photograph by George Simiam

But what about the structures, as workshop participants, in real life, are physically present, moving in, out, on top of and around them?  How did that work on a one-dimensional screen?

I had to think about it, so, what did Mr. Heim ask my team? “Can you build a structure that can be completely deconstructed and packaged in a way that we can ship it to anywhere in the world and the first day of the workshop we give them a tutorial on how to build it?” Because, “When you build it, they come,” as the great movie [Field of Dreams] says.

I asked my technical director [who is also a] dancer, Steven Jasso, a.k.a. Merlin, because he can figure out anything, and he figured out how to design a collapsible cubicle and we pack it and ship it and participants paid us about $100. plus the week or two-week cost of the workshop.

Oh, my god, that is genius. It also sounds like something out of IKEA.

Yes, we became the IKEA of dance and structures, and IKEA should be one of our sponsors. We did that regularly and after months of the coronavirus, Mr. Heim—now I also call myself Napoleon—remembered the days in Paris where I started my street theater group, guerilla style. I did the same with Diavolo.

A few weeks after, I decided to do a film with first responders, military veterans and dancers. Nobody was vaccinated. We did it all with safety codes, masks, quarantining and cleaning up after ourselves. It was therapeutic and rejuvenating. It kept us alive—not just physically, but more emotionally, mentally, morally—that we can continue as artists. We are committed, passionate and we always find a way to continue our mission, which is to create and to push ourselves beyond our own limits. And we did it!

It was about bringing humans together, celebrating vets and civilians to create something, not only here but in the war zone, because we felt like we were also dancers in the war zone and the enemy was this invisible virus. When you put humans in the state of survival, you come together stronger and love and care for one another. 

“S.O.S.—Signs of Strength” performed by Diavolo—Architecture in Motion and military veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

Indeed, which brings me to “S.O.S.—Signs of Strength.” Can you please talk about your latest work.  

We have eight military vets and eight civilians, i.e. dancers, in the piece. Christopher Loverro is a vet we worked with for the last six years and [is] Diavolo’s Veterans Coordinator and Recruitment. He knows how to talk to them. A lot are apprehensive of joining this kind of program because they think they’re going to dance. The word “dance” we never use. I tell them, “You’re not going to dance, you’re not a dancer.” Even my dancers—we move—we move together. If you can walk, you’re gonna walk, jump, crawl, fall. If you can climb you’re gonna climb.

What I realized with this, is it is really beautiful, powerful, meaningful and moving. It’s also entertaining. When I see real humans—humans who are not performers, per se, or dancers—when we see non-dancers doing movement, there’s something authentic and really beautiful about it.

When you watch dancers, it’s gorgeous. They belong to a whole other planet, but when regular audiences see regular human beings doing their own movements which is authentic—whatever age or body type—it’s mesmerizing and you feel more connected with them.

What about the structure—it’s unlikely you can pack it up like a cubicle and ship it on Amazon.

The set is a platform and all the structures are by [our longtime sculptor and structure designer] Daniel Wheeler. We call it our Ibuki platform. It means inner strength, renewal, resilience, to endure and to emerge beautiful. He built this black sort of a platform on wheels that move and with sockets [for the] 10-foot poles on the platform. The poles are like a flag of your country. It elevates humans and is also a metaphor of a rifle. And there’s a 12-feet high, 8-feet wide wall on castors so we can move and manipulate it, spin it, fall from it.

Fantastic! What’s the music like and are there voice-overs and/or live storytelling?

The music is a compilation of classical, modern, different artists. I like Max Richter and Simon Greenberg is our brilliant sound engineer/composer. We create a sound score like a film. You feel like you’re inside a Hollywood action movie. You don’t know if you’re watching a dance piece, a movie, a documentary, a Netflix program.

All the veterans’ stories is voice-over, but sometimes they speak live. I work with a writer/dramaturg, France Nguyen Vincent. And she works with them about making them tell their stories so we create a series of questions that start a conversation that starts them digging deep into their souls, into themselves, to bring them out. We take those stories and generate movements with their stories that culminates into a presentation.

Micah Lugunas in “S.O.S—Signs of Strength” with Diavolo—Architecture in Motion and military veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

Then there’s the casting of Micah Lagunas, a 12-year old boy.

His mother is one of our veterans and he plays kind of this pure human who doesn’t realize the horrors of this world that we live in. He has a beautiful vision of the world, like any children compared to adults who are consumed with our problems, our issues. He looks at life like an angel [and] appears everywhere like an apparition, an innocent being.

You’ve only been working with veterans for six years, yet these new works, which still have all the earmarks of a Diavolo piece, also seem, if I might add, more emotional. How has this kind of work affected you artistically?

I wanted to create a bridge between civilians and veterans. The reason it’s important to show veterans who they are on stage [is] for an audience to realize that men and women of the armed forces are just like you and I. They’re amazing human beings. At the beginning, when we were starting our veterans’ program, Dusty Alvarado was our educational program director and he told me, “You are gonna do the workshop.”

I said I didn’t know what to do with them. I was sweaty and nervous and driving to the studio and I realized this—this is key, actually—that the work I’ve been doing for the last six years, I’ve been doing it all my life and all the life since the inception of Diavolo. It means Diavolo is not just another dance company, it’s the men and women who come to join.

I’m not automatically only focusing on creating a new dance step or a new piece any more. I’m focusing on them, on those humans, pushing them beyond their own limits—to discover what they’re made of. For the last 30 years, I arrive to the studio, look at them, they look at me, like a drill sergeant. “I’m Napoleon, let’s start.”

 Because of the pandemic, the dance landscape has obviously changed. And you’re changing with it. What are your goals and dreams for the future of Diavolo, now entering its —gasp—fourth decade, which is, in itself, a major accomplishment?

My goal is to create a bridge between civilians and vets, to continue this, and make the programs bigger. We bring veterans into our studio, create workshops, help them with issues and we train them and teach them parts of the section of the show and we put them into the show for a time. Then they leave when they want and we have another group coming in.

I would also like for us to get a warehouse where veterans’ programs will operate and to create a permanent show with vets and civilians, with other beautiful, stunning architectural structures, with projections. And it will be like a 75-80 minute show that’s moving, impactful, entertaining, emotional and it is for every kind of audience—from 10 years old to 100-years old.

When you watch “S.O.S.”—and I said this before—you feel like you’re in the middle of a Hollywood action movie. You watch humans telling stories, but it’s real and has a bigger impact. There will be a giant hill with dry mud with stories of veterans that try to ascend the hill; it starts to rain and the dry dirt turns into mud and you see this balletic, acrobatic motion of those humans falling down and trying to climb up and become full of mud.

The edge of the stage is a small river and the bodies full of mud fall into four-foot high water, like a scene where soldiers have to carry weapons above their heads. You go into water, which represents cleanness and balance and purity. Having a permanent show is a dream of mine, because what’s happening with our program with veterans, they need support, care and love. When we work with them, we change their lives.

Jacques Heim as “Uncle Sam.” Image by Simon Greenberg.

Sounds ideal for someone like Tom Hanks to help produce—or even the Bidens, whose late son Beau served in Iraq and whose White House program, “Joining Forces,” supports those who serve.

Mr. President, Tom Hanks, if you read this, I’m sure you’re doing nothing, so come on down and see this show. You always need a little glass of Champagne and Jacques is providing French Champagne!

Here’s hoping!  But in the interim, what advice do you have for young dancers starting out today?

Holy shit, I would say that is the million dollar question. If I were head of a dance department right now in an artistic institution, I would have to think of things I haven’t before, in order that students coming into my program and when they leave the program, they have all the tools possible to succeed in life, not just in dance.

Dance is a vehicle for them to get to where they want, but also to give them other tools. If they want to be artists, entrepreneurs in an artistic world, in the world of theater as technicians, we need to give them those tools to be creative, to be innovators, thinkers. Just to take ballet class, modern dance and composition, you must be kidding to expect to have a long life in the arts.

We know that dance has always been at the bottom of the list of arts in this country, because not a lot of people go to see dance. In Europe, it’s part of our culture. In this country, it’s different and it was already a challenge to get audiences to see dance and have sold out crowds. Presenters lose money when they present dance. They don’t lose money when they present music concerts. It’s frustrating and dancers always get paid the least.

We have to rethink that and it starts with education. It’s easy for me to say. I don’t have the answer, but if I was head of a department or some kind of training academy it would be to become a complete performer, a complete thinker.

Do you have any final thoughts on performing for a live audience for the first time in more than two years?

People need to come. This is not just another dance company; it’s about bringing community together. To see veterans moving on structures, trying to keep their balance, flying, not falling, seeing them together is a metaphor for the last two years. We’re all working together and trying to survive and get to a destination together. It’s about opening their hearts; it’s about sacrifice. And if you don’t come, Jacques, a.k.a. Napoleon, is going to hunt you down.