“How many pull-ups can you do?” That’s how Artistic Director Jacques Heim greeted me as I arrived at the Diavolo | Architecture in Motion dance studio – a warehouse in the heart of Downtown’s Arts District. Jacques and company were in the midst of rehearsal when I arrived on a nearly 100 degree day. The dozen industrial size fans cooling the space beat like drums intensifying the moment.
I was there to learn more about Diavolo’s upcoming Ford Signature Series show L’Espace du Temps coming to the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in September. The company’s most ambitious creation to date, the trilogy will be performed in its entirety for the first time in the US, with live orchestration from New West Symphony, under the direction of Christopher Rountree.
“Pull-ups?” I responded with a gulp. “I have no idea.”
“If you can do five pull-ups you can ask two questions. If you can do eight, you can ask three questions. 10, you can ask four. You ready?”
“No, please!” I blurted out. I then suggested that I’d just be a “fly one the wall” adding meekly that I didn’t want to interrupt their flow.
“Ok then. Someone get me a fly swatter!” Jacques commanded and raised his hand as though to pin me to the wall. I laughed nervously, but the twinkle in his eye convinced me he was at least half joking.
I was saved by rehearsal director Shauna Martinez who reminded Jacques that it was time to rehearse transitions.
“Transitions! You’ll be a bored fly,” Jacques declared. One of the transitions involved a dancer packing another dancer in a suitcase and rolling her away. Boredom seemed unlikely.
The Diavolo work space is a vast platform stage populated by several cubes, a large board with knobs protruding like bristles, a metallic sculpture of a woman doing a bridge pose and what looked like an iron cage.
Aside from their genre-defying style – that blends aerial work, martial arts, gymnastics, ballet, hip-hop, contemporary dance and more – it’s their interactive structures that really set Diavolo apart.
“The structures are never just there to be there,” dancer Kellie St. Pierre told me. “A lot of dance I’ve experienced has no relation to the scenery – except for maybe one moment. Here it’s not just a decoration. It’s moving us. We’re moving it. Our bodies are being influenced by it.”
Many of these structures are manufactured by Torrance vintage car restorer Mike McCluskey and it’s easy to see that influence in their sleek and sturdy designs.
“It’s always fun to learn how to use a new structure,” Kellie added. “The second piece [inL’Espace du Temps] has a floor that comes up with motors and boxes that fit into each other and pins that come out and spin. There’s so much going on.”
I was interested in learning about how the company creates its work, so I found Jacques again. “I work in a country called collaboration – it has its own rules, its own regulations and its own language,” he told me.
Jacques will come to the first rehearsal armed with an idea or a theme and a physical structure that interests him. He presents these to the company and assigns “homework,” which can include a piece of music or a writing assignment that inspires a string of movement. Jacques then modifies and arranges these strings of movement in collaboration with designers and choreographers. Often the last touch is the music, which is scored to the choreography.
“It’s not just that we’re allowed to have a voice,” said dancer Jessie Ryan. “We’re expected to have a voice. Everything that Jacques does poses a question or a faint idea and then we have to make that a reality.”
The initial idea for L’Espace du Temps hit Jacques while the company was on tour in Aspen, Colorado.
“Our dressing room was in an elementary classroom. There were toys everywhere – it was fantastic!” Jacques explained.
Among the toys were triangular blocks that, when arranged together, formed cubes. This inspired Jacques to research cubes. He found that the philosopher René Descartes believed the universe was built from geometric solids.
“The cube became a symbol of the beginning of time and a metaphor for creation,” Jacques said. “Three questions emerged: Where are we coming from? Where are we going? How did everything start?” And, a trilogy was born.
Although all three in the trilogy have been performed before, they’ve been presented all together only once and never in the States, until now. “The impact of the three pieces together is gigantic. I feel like we’ve been building towards this moment,” Jacques said, the pace and volume of his words building with passion. “And don’t say ‘oh, Northridge is too far away.’ That’s wrong and lazy. Art is an experience. Art is who we are.”
The Ford Signature Series is made possible through the generous support of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Original program created with support from former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.