His idea of a good time is watching dancers hurl themselves off tall structures, scramble up sloping walls, and narrowly miss getting squished by heavy moving objects. He’s Jacques Heim, and he is the visionary behind Los Angeles’ visually stunning, high-impact dance company, Diavolo. Ever the maverick, Heim admits to making mistakes, and is fond of saying he knows nothing about dance. He’s never been a dancer himself, yet for 12 years he has been wowing audiences with dynamic, architectural dance spectacles.
This Friday, February 25, Heim brings Diavolo to the Granada, where they last performed in 2008. In advance of their return, he answered a few questions about the new program, the physical risks involved in his work, and the importance of cultivating a “beginner’s mind.”
Last time you came to Santa Barbara, we talked about the incredible architectural structures you like to use. Got any fun new props in this program? Yes. Last time we performed “Foreign Bodies,” which used a giant cube that broke apart into three segments. That dance is actually part of a trilogy, and this time I’m bringing the second installment, “Fearful Symmetries,” set to the music of John Adams. This time the dancers are dressed as factory workers and they deconstruct and reconstruct the cube into six different parts. It’s kind of about how life has a certain order and symmetry, and when you break that norm, things change. People want certainty in this uncertain time. People are looking for answers.
Then we are bringing “Tête en l’Air,” which takes place on a giant staircase with trapdoors. The title means “Head in the Clouds.” Everything in this piece is completely absurd and abstract. It’s a lot like if you go to a museum and see an abstract painting; we create something similar live on stage.
And one of the other pieces we’re performing this time is “Humachina.” It uses a big wheel, and the basic question is: What is more important, the human or the machine? It starts with a duet, and eventually you realize that all the dancers connect to create this giant wheel and make it function.
Your auditions are notoriously demanding, and your company members vary greatly in terms of their backgrounds. How do you know when you’ve found the right person? Our audition is a six-hour day, two-day process, so if you survive the audition that says a lot, not only physically but also mentally. To make the cut, you have to be a dancer with a certain base in understanding movement: ballet, modern, and everyday movement. It helps to have some gymnastics — to understand your body upside down and in reverse — and also if you know how to improvise, and if you’re not afraid of heights. If you are not strong that is a major problem because our rehearsal process is so intense and the impact on the dancers and on the structures is so demanding, it’s a little like the NFL. You need to have upper body and core strength. Finally, we do an interview. My dancers cannot be driven by the ego. If it’s all about you you’re not going to fit into a team environment: teaching, creating a show, constructing the set, getting dirty, getting cut, lifting heavy objects. I have to put a team together; five men and five women who will respect each other, have fun, be creative, be strong, and inspire one another. But you only really get to know someone once you’re on tour. Tour is grueling. So I think of Diavolo a little like the military, or firefighters, or football players.
What are you most excited about right now as a choreographer? You know what is most exciting right now is that I am maturing more and more. I started touring the company internationally in 1999, so it’s been 12 years. At first I thought, “Ok, so my first three years I’ll make the best piece ever, and that’ll be it,” and actually over the years I am slowly, slowly maturing as an artist, and, therefore, my pieces are better crafted. The better crafted they are, the more I want to work. I feel like “Fearful Symmetries” is one of our best-composed pieces to date. You may not like it, but if we’re talking about composition you cannot say this piece is badly composed, or else you have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s how confident I am about my work — not about every piece I’ve made, but about that one. I am completely honest with myself. I don’t believe everything I do is great; not at all. I didn’t know “Fearful Symmetries” was going to come out the way it did. It’s like having a kid; you create this child but you have no idea how he or she is going to come out. It’s exciting to see that I am really maturing, and to actually be able to criticize myself. I know nothing about dance. When I start a piece, I say that to myself: “I know nothing about dance; I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Your work looks really risky for the dancers. What can you tell me about injuries? You know, for what we do there aren’t as many injuries as you would think. When you hire the right people, they have complete awareness of who they are and what they need to do to stay injury-free. For the first five years after I started the company there were injuries left and right. The emergency room nurses knew us on a first-name basis. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, “Why not, let’s try it — Oh shit, sorry!” and the performers who were just starting out with me were not as ready or as well-trained as they are now… so we were all learning. Now I hire people who are more aware of who they are, who have more technique, and so the main injuries we have are sprained ankles, and broken toes, fingers, and ribs. That’s regular for us.
What else do you want your Santa Barbara audience to know about Diavolo? Still to this day, after 12 years of touring, I cannot describe what Diavolo is about. We are not a dance company, or a circus, or a theater company; there is something fascinating and indescribable about this work. Whether you like it or not you will still appreciate it for what it is. It’s definitely unusual — unusually visceral and visual.
Diavolo will perform at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, February 25 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.