Choreographers are frequently asked what comes first when they make a dance piece: the music or the movement.
“For me, neither,” said artistic director Jacques Heim, whose Los Angeles-based troupe of acrobatic-dance daredevils, Diavolo, will perform Friday and Saturday night at Johnson County Community College.
Heim’s pieces originate with the construction of a compelling, typically enormous set piece. His dancers climb, run, leap, tumble, slide, flip, turn and soar from, on or around this structure with thrilling athleticism. “I have no vision for anything happening on a bare stage. What inspires me are the interactions between architecture and the human body,” Heim explained.
Those interactions, discovered by the dancers and eventually set to music, inspire Heim to develop overarching themes and metaphoric meanings that turn the movement explorations into evocative works of art. “My work is not pure dance, not theater and most definitely not circus. It’s what I like to call ‘architecture in motion.’ Look at it like you would an abstract painting come alive. Don’t expect to immediately understand it, nor to be entertained. It should make you think,” Heim said. Despite having earned a bachelor of fine arts in theater, dance and film from Middlebury College in Vermont and a master of fine arts in choreography from the California Institute for the Arts, Heim considers himself neither a dancer nor a choreographer. “I can’t even touch my toes,” he said. All of the movements in Diavolo’s pieces are invented by the performers. Heim referred to them as “gladiators.” In addition to strong dance technique, acrobatic skills and no fear of heights, cuts, scrapes, bruises or blood, “they must be mentally prepared to go out there and know that anything can come at them, and they must deal with it. Just like life itself.” Looking to hire several new performers for next season, Diavolo held auditions in New York earlier this month and invited me to observe. What I saw was unlike any dance audition I’d ever experienced. To no musical accompaniment and given no numerical counts by which to organize their timing, auditionees were taught gut-busting movement combinations and charged with somehow performing them in rhythmic sync with other dancers. Cuts were made after each combination.
Those who made it through to the end had to pass rigorous strength tests: chin-ups, V-seats hanging from a trellis, push-ups at an excruciatingly slow tempo, and a handstand walk across the floor. Remaining hopefuls were then asked to create a short phrase of acrobatic choreography, demonstrating the most impressive tricks in their personal repertoire. The intimidating, five-hour audition process was led with elegant authority by company member and rehearsal director Shauna Martinez, who grew up in Derby, Kan., just south of Wichita. Martinez began her movement training as a child, at the Sheila Skelton School of Dance, and went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts in dance from Wichita State University. Currently in her fifth year with Diavolo, Martinez said, “Being in this company really pushes your boundaries and tests how much you really want to be an artist. It’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s a major challenge, mentally and physically.”
Designed to efficiently weed out auditionees who don’t possess what it takes to be a Diavolo performer, the phrases were demonstrated by company member Amy Tuley, while Martinez watched eagle-eyed and made shrewd comments that measured the auditionees’ ability to hear feedback and adapt their performances accordingly. “In the first combination, we are looking for athleticism, like with that back roll into a press-up into a handstand,” explained Tuley, who earned her bachelor of fine arts in dance from the University of North Texas in Denton. “But in the second one we’re looking for artistry — balance, dance technique and flow between movements, like with the arm reaches, turns and head releases. And the third combination is our acro phrase — with the hand plants, cartwheels, front walk-over and jumps that move in and out of the floor.” Beyond individual skills, strength and creativity, the Diavolo dancers must possess acute spatial awareness and the ability to work collaboratively. At the outset of the audition, which was in a small, contained area of a gym crowded with equipment, auditionees were sternly warned not to bump into one another.
“If you do, I’ll know right away you’re not for us,” Martinez asserted. “It’s all about trust and teamwork,” she explained later. “Onstage, we have to fly off of an object into another performer’s arms. Do you trust yourself enough to do this, and do you trust that other person?”
Diavolo’s performance at JCCC will include two contrasting pieces: “Trajectoire,” danced on an oversize, rocking half-wheel, and “Transit Space,” performed on giant skateboard ramps. “One is beautiful and the other is fun,” Heim explained. “ ‘Trajectoire,’ the beautiful one, is about balance and equilibrium. The dancers work on a huge structure, but at any moment they can get pushed off and sent flying. It’s a metaphor for life.” “Transit Space” is rooted in Heim’s conversations with California skateboarders and “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” a documentary film about the sport’s pioneers. Heim discovered that many skateboarders in the film come from rough, underprivileged backgrounds, yet when they are on their boards, they experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that they can really accomplish something.
“I felt a real connection with them,” said Heim, who was born and raised in Paris. “When I was growing up, my parents were divorced, and I, too, was searching for some kind of structure and sense of community.
“I became a street performer with a group that performed in all kinds of different places, like on top of city buildings and subway cars. I got kicked out of six different schools. I was a real rebel.” Heim came to the United States to be an actor but was told in college that his English was not good enough. “When I realized I couldn’t do Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, I gravitated to the dance department. There I fell in love with human body movement as a universal language. I combined it with my love for architecture, and that’s how it all started.” Adventuresome dance artists, take note: Diavolo is holding another round of auditions in Chicago on May 3.
Friday and Saturday
Diavolo performs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall. Tickets are $30 and $40; half-price for those under 18. For more information, call 913-469-4445 or go to JCCC.edu/TheSeries.