Sunday, March 18, 2007

Diavolo's Jacques Heim on High-Flying Dance

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Paris-born Jacques Heim gravitated to dance classes from theater while at Middlebury College. He heard one didn’t need to speak while dancing and his English still needed some work. Interested in the way the human body interacts with environment, he began using props in his dances. Eventually the props grew in size and became his signature. He started Diavolo in 1992 as a container for his unique brand of work that combines dance, gymnastics, extreme theatricality, and architectural structures. He has been named one of the "Faces to Watch in the Arts" by the LA Times and one of the "100 Coolest People in LA" by Buzz Magazine. Other honors include the 1992 Martha Hill Choreography Award from the American Dance Festival and the 1992 Special Prize of the Jury at the 6th Saitama International Dance Festival in Saitama, Japan. Heim chats about his upcoming Houston program.

DSH: First off, welcome back Jacques and Diavolo daredevils, glad to find you all still very much alive and soon to be flying in the Houston air. What do you like about returning to a place?

JH: We try to keep ties with places we have been. Creating a touring company means creating relationships with that place and continuing to develop audiences for our work.
Most of the places we go to hope that we come back.

DSH: What’s changed for the company since your last visit? I think you were in the midst of creating KA for Cirque du Soleil.

JH: On one hand, a lot of us changed for us. But it’s like we are on train but there is no train station. I will never feel that this is it—I have arrived. If you feel that you have arrived, there is something wrong. We have grown as a company and an organization. Working on KA allowed me to grow as an artist and a director. It was like getting my Ph. D. Also we have been touring more and that always puts the company in a growth curve.

DSH: Let’s talk about the program. I remember you telling me about how you got the idea of Trajectoire from seeing a small boat in a friend’s home. Of course the boat got a whole lot bigger and more abstract in the making of the dance. How did the architectural piece, a metal-pegged wall, for D2R-A come into your world?

JH: The structure in D2R-A came from a conversation with sculptor Daniel Wheeler (who also did the structure for Trajectoire). We were talking about how to move on a wall. Gradually all the specifics got worked out through our discussions. The reason I like to collaborate with sculptors and architects is that motion and emotion are very important both of us.

DSH: Obstacles, barriers, big things that roll and rock seem very important to you. Were you always interested in the way things move and how humans partner with the stuff around us?

JH: Always. In a different life I might have been an architect.

DSH: Knockturne is a new piece for Houston. I understand that the piece examines the door as portal, passage, blockade and overall archetypal symbol of a threshold. What brought your imagination to doors?

JH: Doors are one of the most recognized structures of an architectural environment. One day I counted how many times I used a door; it was in the thousands. I enjoy doors. There are also 200 white pillows in the piece. That’s another object we use a lot. At the end of the day we are all the same; we put our head on the pillow.

DSH: You create your work collectively through extended play and improvisation with structures or objects. Do you ever feel as if the structure talks back, that it takes on a creative voice? The vessel in Trajectoire seems to take on a personality; that could be just my projection. What do you think?

JH: Absolutely. Every structure is another performer on stage. We have to hear what the structure is telling us and not telling us, how it shifts or becomes moody. I always tell the dancers, “Watch out, don’t think you know everything about that structure.”

DSH: How do you find dancers that have the training to do your work?
JH: You don’t. We use a six-hour audition process. To find dancers that have ballet, modern, and gymnastics, are not afraid of heights, blood, and heavy contact with objects and the human body, is impossible to find. We take dancers with some of these qualities and the rehearsal process becomes the training ground. In the best of all worlds we would have a Diavolo training program.

DSH: This time around you are doing master classes and working with corporations with your own team-building risk-taking process. How is it different to you to come to a city and meet and work with people before you perform? Do you feel more connected to the city?
JH: Yes. The great thing about coming and staying longer, as opposed to a quick load in and load out, is that you have a relationship with the community. You feel a bit more a part of the city. This is vital for art in America.

DSH: Tell us about the piece titled Apex.
JH: It’s a whimsical duet between a man, a woman, and 2 ladders. It’s a good intro to the Diavolo way of using regular objects and doing something very different with them.

DSH: What’s next for the company?

JH: We have been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to set a new work to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s composition, Foreign Bodies, to be premiered at the Hollywood Bowl on September 4th. We are about to build the model of the structure and begin work on the piece. It’s a totally different process.

Learn more at

Society for the Performing Arts presents Diavolo on March 22 & 23 at 8PM at
Wortham Center, Cullen Theatre. Call 713-227-4SPA or visit

A Master Class with Diavolo will be held on March 19th 7:30-9pm at the Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, $3.50 for advance reservations, $5 at the door. Call (713) 729-3200 EXT. 3223 for more information or to make reservations. Observers are welcome.