Diavolo dancers brave physical risk and giant props to convey universal human themes
About six years ago, choreographer Jacques Heim was somewhere in the middle of America. The native Parisian stood with his dance company and looked at the local performing-arts center, which was literally in a cornfield.
"I said: 'What the heck are we doing here? Nobody is going to come,'" Heim said in an interview this week, still marveling at the memory.
But the venue had a thousand seats and was surprisingly high-tech. That night, Heim's Diavolo Dance Theater sold out the house. "In this community they were hungry for the arts," Heim said.
Diavolo, a vigorous company that blends modern dance with acrobatics, hip-hop and giant props, often holds a post-show Q&A to hear what the audience made of it all. That night in the cornfield was one of Heim's career highlights.
One man stood up, a bearded farmer in suspenders who had been dragged to the theater by his wife. Telling the story, Heim attempts a small-town drawl through his French accent. "He said, 'I don't know anything about dance, but if that's what dance is, then I really love it.'"
Heim's voice is delighted at the memory. "What we do, it is dance, but a different form. The regular people who are not intellectuals, or artists, can go see dance.
"I thought, 'OK, Jacques, that's why you do what you do.'"
During its 13 years of touring, Diavolo has often attracted audience members who are not typical modern-dance buffs. That may be the case again on Jan. 28, when the company performs at Stanford University. And Heim is not your characteristic choreographer.
"My background is completely weird. I'm sort of the black sheep of dance," Heim said, laughing. "I'm completely awkward. I have skinny legs. I look like a little chicken running around."
Heim, 47, left Paris in 1983 to attend Middlebury College in Vermont. He started in the theater department, but had trouble being understood by audiences because of his limited English, he said. Friends in the dance department urged him to join them.
"I fell in love with movement," he said. "I thought it was a great, wonderful way of theater."
Heim also has an interest in architecture, and he used structures in his choreography: first tables and chairs, then larger things. He thought about how human bodies and structures affect each other, how they become part of each other, how they're both vulnerable. After he earned a master's degree in choreography, he started his own dance company.
Heim wanted something different than a traditional modern-dance group, and that's what he built. In his works, his dancers interact with often-huge props to explore such themes as survival in the modern world and the absurdities of human actions. Heim believes Diavolo dance appeals to people from all walks of life because it's so visual, and visceral.
In the 1998 piece "Apex," for example, Diavolo dancers navigated spinning ladders meant to symbolize the bumps of human relationships. The 2003 work "Dreamcatcher" was based on a Native American legend, with dancers taking a "journey through faith" — and through an 18-foot spinning wheel made of aluminum and steel.
At Stanford's Memorial Auditorium on Jan. 28, Diavolo will perform pieces that Heim set to music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley composer John Adams. A one-hour family matinee will be at 3 p.m. with four shorter Adams works; a full performance follows at 8 p.m.
The centerpiece of the evening event is "Fearful Symmetries," a 2010 Heim piece set to Adams' 1988 composition of the same name. It's part of a trilogy that the Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned Heim to create. (The other two works, set to music by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philip Glass, are not on the Stanford program.)
Adams has premiered many notable symphonic and operatic works in San Francisco; his work has been described as minimalist and humanist. He has called "Fearful Symmetries" "seriously acrobatic."
Heim said the piece was tough for a choreographer because of its many layers. Listening to it "a couple thousand times" helped, as did a visit from Adams to the Diavolo studio in Los Angeles. The composer sat in on a run-through and helped analyze his work.
The main result was a cube. Heim's piece starts with a cube designed by Adam Davis that "is the symbol of all geometry," he said. The dancers pull and work at it as they move.
In a 2010 Los Angeles Times review, Lewis Segal wrote: "This mysterious structure held all sorts of hidden panels, apertures and crevices, but quickly opened up to evoke a whole cityscape, then divided into rectangular platforms that became everything from towers to surfboards."
While Segal wrote that he believed the dance work didn't always "embody the darkness in the music," he said the piece called to mind heroic acts, such as those that happened during 9/11. "The best moments ... showed a familiar landscape suddenly becoming dangerous and people forced by an unexpected loss of control to discover new capabilities and relationships," he wrote.
The Stanford program also includes the less cerebral work "Trajectoire." It's set on a 14-foot-long rocking prop that looks like a modern galleon. Dancers manipulate it by moving back and forth, swaying and keeping their balance, and — when they really get going — flying into the air. One of the themes is "the ever-shifting landscape of human relations in modern society."
The dancers who fly into the air are usually caught by other dancers. But as society shifts, so does human timing.
"When we train dancers, they know that some nights if you're in the wrong place, or the catchers are in the wrong place, you can crash," Heim said.
That's why Diavolo dancers need to be a special breed. Risk-takers. People who can lift their own body weight. Preferably not afraid of heights. A rock-climbing or gymnastics background helps.
"You have to be kind of a gladiator," Heim said.
Heim says that there's never been a serious injury at Diavolo. But broken fingers and toes happen a lot, as well as stitches and knee damage.
The risks bring rewards, Heim said. "There's something unspoken and priceless about coming together on stage to do this as a team."
He added, "At the end they stand tall and proud when the curtain opens for the bow."
What: The Diavolo Dance Theater gives two local performances.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: A one-hour family program is set for 3 p.m., with a full performance at 8 p.m., on Jan. 28. A post-performance discussion with artistic director Jacques Heim follows the 8 p.m. show.
Cost: For the 3 p.m. show, tickets are $14-$34 for adults, $7-$17 for youths under 18, $10 for Stanford students and $15-$29 for other students. For the 8 p.m. show, admission is $28-$68 general, $14-$34 for youths under 18, $10 for Stanford students and $23-$63 for other students.
Info: Go to livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.