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Jacques Heim: Diavolo Exploring New Ground

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Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.

Jacques Heim, artistic director of L.A.-based Diavolo, can tell you a thing or two about surviving in this town as a professional dance company. It's been 20 years since he first offered up his unique brand of contemporary dance to the finicky masses that utilizes large, surrealistic structures and dynamic modern and aerobatic movement. Since then Heim has mounted hundreds of successful commissioned works, taken his company on 13 international tours (structures in tow) and enjoyed multiple collaborations with world renowned artists like Esa Pekka Salonen, Philip Glass, and even Cirque du Soleil.

In addition, Heim was named one of the "100 Coolest People in LA" by Buzz Magazine, and his company was officially declared a cultural treasure by the City.

Diavolo's latest work, Transit Space, which has its west coast premier at the Broad Stage tonight, may just secure his cultural prominence within the Los Angeles zeitgeist. Inspired by the skateboarding culture that grew out of Santa Monica, Ca., the piece features 10 dancers who explore Skateboarding as a form of expression using a giant ramp designed by renowned installation artist and set designer Sybil Wickersheimer. The performance also features spoken word and an original musical score.

Transit Space had its world premiere in April at the Center for the Performing Arts at Pennsylvania State University as the culminating event of Diavolo's participation in the Creative Campus Project.

Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno
Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno

After four performances at the Broad, the company continues its international tour which pairs Transit Space with Trajectoire (1999) and Fearful Symmetries (2010)--one of three pieces commissioned by the LA Philharmonic and performed at the Hollywood Bowl (Foreign Bodies debuted in 2007 and Fluid Infinities will debut next year).

Heim was fresh out of the California Institute for the Arts' masters program when he first established Diavolo. He had yet to encounter the hard realities of launching a company with the pesky geographical hurdles, the inane car culture and the unpredictable ebb and flow of arts funding.

All he knew was that he was fascinated with architecture and structures and their relationship to human bodies and movement. He sought to use that interplay to evoke powerful imagery representing societal themes while exploring the frailties of being human.

What he didn't anticipate was the enormous cost of getting the structures to a venue, sometimes up to $100,000.

But when he considered doing away with the structures in his pieces, he found that people--and the company's presenters - wanted them to stay. After all, the structures are not merely scenic backdrops but integral to the pieces in their shape and functionality. When the dancers interact with the architecture, Heim hopes audiences gain a different understanding of what is considered dance.

According to Heim, it's been an ongoing struggle goading people out of their geographic comfort zones to see dance. The theatrical experience in Los Angeles is so compartmentalized and susceptible to freeway conditions, it's often baffling to plan performances or estimate tickets sales, he says. That's why Diavolo prefers to perform exclusively for a presenter's fee, rather than rely on a cut of ticket sales at various theaters throughout the region. "We can't really afford the risk of renting the theater and taking a percentage of the box office knowing the audience in Los Angeles, and our company is so expensive, we have to carry all that cargo around," he says.

This weekend he's up against perhaps one of the biggest obstacles he's encountered in his two decades of performing in L.A.: Carmageddon. Heim hopes audiences will ignore the hype of potential freeway entanglements and cross the Wilshire Corridor to see the show.

"It's really a fun piece to watch," he says. "I always feel really good after I see it."

Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.
Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.

You've been part of the LA dance landscape for 20 years! What's changed about dance since then?

I feel in a bit of a conundrum about dance in Los Angeles. At times I feel there is no dance community despite having a lot of dance companies and artists. Dance in San Francisco and Los Angeles is completely different even though they're both on the west coast. Dance in San Francisco is more coherent and has a strong, cohesive community. In Los Angeles, the challenges we have here will always remain challenges because the communities are spread so far from one another.

In the San Francisco dance community, you can see it, you can feel it, you can see the limits of the city; north to south and east to west. You know exactly who your neighbor is. You actually see it physically. You interact with them. It's the same with New York.

How do you get around those limitations? How do you find your audience?
As I said, it's an ongoing challenge. Unfortunately in Los Angeles, audiences stay in the area where their theater is and don't venture out elsewhere to experience dance.

People are very affected by the freeways, by the distance, and being so spread out.
I remember when we performed at the Broad Stage in 2008, I asked the audience who was seeing Diavolo that night for the first time. About 99% of the audience put their hands up. No one had seen us perform!

Only people who are very involved in the arts scene will travel to see dance, and that's the diehard 1%. The regular population who hear about different companies, will not.

So, the big misconception is that people in L.A. don't like dance. The reality is that they do, they're just not willing to travel in their cars out of their community to see it.

Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.
Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.

Tell us about your new piece Transit Space.
It's a completely different piece than we have done before; more of a narrative, and less abstract.

The piece is based on the skateboarding culture. It's about individuality and how people come together as a group and how you can become strong as a group. It's about feeling lost and coming together. About the space between the space emotionally and physically, and how we shift culturally in our life.

Skateboarders always need to move from wall to staircase, ramp to wall, pavement to bench -- they're in constant motion and always shifting. Yet the community is a very tight and there's a real strength in coming together as a group. Even though they compete, they are very encouraging of one another.

I am fascinated with the movement and culture of skateboarders; the philosophy behind it, the meaning of it, and why kids so adore the sensation. Also, young kids sometimes get really badly injured, so I was curious why they pushed themselves to such extremes.

In addition to that, there's been a movement of communities building public parks for kids to skateboard in so kids wouldn't skateboard in public spaces. I found that interesting.

Transit Space

How did the project start?
The University of Penn State received a creative campus innovation grant (part of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's The Creative Campus Innovations Program administered by the Association of Performing Arts.] Universities who received the grant were able to choose a company to collaborate with them, and Penn State chose Diavolo.

Our theme was "The Secret Life of Public Spaces" and we worked with Penn State's Department of Architecture, Department of Landscaping, Engineering Department and Department of Dance.

Installation artist and set designer Sybil Wickersheimer designed ramps as a form of urban environment. With the grant and the structure, we decided to do a piece associated with culture of kids who skateboard in public parks and spaces.

I had also been involved in a play with Corey Madden called The Stones which used similar set pieces and also explored themes of restlessness of youth, searching for destinations and striving to do better.

We also connected with Nathan Pratt, who was featured as part of the original 12 member skateboarding team documented in 2001's Dogtown and Z-Boys (about the 1970s Zephyr competition skateboard team who, as avid surfers, laid the foundation for aerial skateboarding today).

I was inspired by the film, and we invited Nathan to the studio with some of the original people from the documentary. They demonstrated some moves for us, and we interpreted how their bodies moved. In the piece Transit Space, the dancers don't actually skateboard whatsoever.

We also collaborated with some young teens from Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual And Performing Arts as part of our research.

They told us they felt like rebels, and free, and that they were coming together as a tight community. They told us their stories from broken homes, parents doing drugs, feeling lost and having no sense of future. As soon as they were on a skateboard they felt a sense of completion, sense of freedom, and a connection with friends in different communities with whom they would meet up to go to skateboard parks.

We asked them a lot of questions: What happens if you get hurt? What happens if you hurt your leg and can't move? One 17 year old said to me, "Jacques, you always ask me, 'What happens if. What happens if. ' If my life was constantly starting with, 'What happens if,' then I would never take chances and move forward."

So this kid is suddenly speaking to me in a very philosophical way and saying you need to move forward. You need to continue. That's what the piece also is about.

Transit Space | Photo:  Michael Misciagno.
Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.

Who else is involved in the project?
I love to work with collaborators. If I have collaborators around me it enhances the process.

I put a great team together. Paul James, composed the music and did the dramaturgy; Steve Connell, a spoken word artist, connected the scenes, and John Bass was the lighting designer.

I also worked with David and Valeria Beaudry, physical interactive designers. We have sensors in the costumes and ramps, and at times you'll see the dancers touching themselves within the movement and you'll hear a word, as they hit a movement. For example, at any time a dancer within the movement hits his chest as part of the emotion and the movement, you immediately hear, "Why, Why?" Then you jump on your board and music starts. There's a relationship between the technology and the dancer and it becomes a duet.

What's next? Who would you like to collaborate with?
I don't know yet. Would love to collaborate with Frank Gehry at some point. That would be amazing.

I'm also interested in The Eternity Project based on Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and plan on visiting Israel next year.

For tickets to Transit Space please click here or call 310.434.3200.

Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.
Transit Space | Photo: Michael Misciagno.

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