Diavolo’s fearless dance fusion

Diavolo’s unique architecture is the launch pad for their high-flying dance.

By Tim Smith

Anyone who has attended the circus has experienced that breathtaking moment when the trapeze artists fly high above you, and one of them lets go in mid-air. You instinctively gasp and wonder, “Will they catch the other person’s hands?” This is the feeling you get while watching the acrobatic dance troupe, Diavolo. The internationally acclaimed company will be performing at Clark State University’s Kuss Auditorium on Feb. 9.

Diavolo: Architecture in Motion (simply known as Diavolo) is an American dance company founded by Jacques Heim. The company’s movement style encompasses modern dance, acrobatics, and gymnastics. Diavolo has been based in Los Angeles since its founding, and has toured across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The company’s repertoire presents dance that is redefined through dynamic movement, and enlightens communities through trust, teamwork, and individual expression. 

The name Diavolo is inspired in part by the Spanish word for “day,” and the Latin word for “I fly.” It also refers to a game in which a top-like object is spun and thrown, then caught by and balanced on a string that is manipulated by hand. The company personifies both definitions by performing acrobatic and modern dance movements set on a variety of oversized architectural structures. These structures serve as a backdrop to the dramatic movements that create metaphors for humanity’s everyday struggles—relationships, the absurdity of life, and the attempt to maintain our humanity in an increasingly technological world.

The NFL of Dance

French-born choreographer and visionary Jacques Heim created Diavolo in 1992, upon completion of his MFA in Dance and Choreography at the California Institute of the Arts. The dance troupe quickly developed a following, not only in Los Angeles, but across the country and abroad. 25 years after its inception, Diavolo continues to be a cultural pillar of the Los Angeles community. When Heim came up with the concept, he had a very specific goal in mind.

“Diavolo is very much a collaborative group,” he says. “We work exactly like a team. I collaborate with architects and sculptors. I come up with the seed of an idea and I spend a lot of time drawing designs of what I envision and I bring everyone around me. That’s the beauty of Diavolo. At the end of the day, it’s a group effort. My dancers choreograph the piece. The collaboration is happening between the architects, the lighting people, the costume designers, and the dancers. It’s really the mission of Diavolo that I wanted a group of creators who would work together to come up with a performance piece.”

Not every aspiring dancer or gymnast can become a member of the Diavolo troupe. Heim points out that the audition process alone is very rigorous.

“It’s still very much a challenge to really find the right breed for Diavolo, and I will call it a breed,” he says. “Our company is a very demanding dance company, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. An audition lasts for a minimum of 8 hours. The requirement for men and women is they need to have a great technique in modern dance. If they have a background in gymnastics and acrobatics, that is even better. They cannot have a fear of heights, or bruising, or bleeding. If someone gets injured during an audition or rehearsal, I send them out to get stitches, then they come back to the rehearsal. We are very much the NFL of dance. My speeches to them are a little bit like a football coach’s instructions to his players, and we practice like football players. You cannot be a diva. You have to be a part of a team, because everybody works with one another. After those 8 hours, I do an interview with the person and see what they are about and if they have what it takes to be a part of this family called Diavolo.”

Diavolo’s performance pieces are noted for their acrobatic movements that combine innovative dance with a hint of danger, where one performer must rely on another. Heim related a personal experience that explains how this concept came about.

“When there was the big earthquake in Los Angeles, I was living in an apartment complex,” he says. “I didn’t know any of my neighbors at all until the earthquake. When the earthquake hit, we all got together, sharing blankets, food, water, and flashlights. Everyone was sitting in someone’s apartment and we started to have this little community. I thought ‘Wow, earthquakes are great. I wish we had them more regularly because it brings people together as a community.’ When you put people in a state of survival, people start to work together as a group. That is the spirit I wanted to bring into Diavolo. Our themes are human struggle, human condition, danger, chaos, order, survival, and destiny.”

Diavolo’s use of oversized architectural pieces comes from Heim’s personal interest in design and its impact on modern culture. 

“I grew up in Paris, France,” he says. “At the time, I was a rebel and I got kicked out of 6 different schools and my parents told me I had to go to America, the land of opportunity. I went to Middlebury College in Vermont. At first, I wanted to become an actor, but my English was so bad. I had a friend in the dance department who suggested that I attend the dance school because I wouldn’t have to speak. I discovered the power and universal language of movement. I also wanted to be an architect. I discovered a way to combine dance and my love for architecture. The great philosophers of our environment are architects. I wanted to create the relationship between the human body and architecture. How does it affect us emotionally? How does it impact human movement? I wanted to show how powerful, strong, vulnerable, weak, and beautiful we are against structures. That is what I wanted to create with Diavolo.”

Once Heim decided that he wanted to form an innovative performance company that embodied his vision, there was the small matter of finding a name that would reflect that vision.

“I wanted to have a dance company, but I didn’t want to call it the Jacques Heim Dance Theatre, because I thought that was a little pompous,” he says. “I wanted to find a name that American people could pronounce, and one that they would remember. If you Google Jacques Heim, you will find my grandfather, also named Jacques Heim. He was a very famous fashion designer who designed the bikini. His logo was a fox. I decided to choose the fox because it is an animal that is very witty, a little rascal, very fast, and willing to take a chance. I felt that it described what I wanted to do with this company.”

Giving Back 

Diavolo engages in community work and educational outreach, which includes holding classes, workshops, and seminars for children and adults. Many of the workshops are regularly held at schools, hospitals, and juvenile detention centers. Education and community outreach have been a part of Diavolo since its inception, and the programs continue to grow. 

One of the institute’s philanthropic endeavors is providing dance education for low-income youth and their families in the Los Angeles area. The programs include L.A. Familia (a class that uses dance to get entire families working together), L.A. Unity (a workshop for school and community performances on the distinct Diavolo set pieces), and T.R.U.S.T. (an interactive in-school assembly show, featuring trust exercises and student participation). 

“This was part of my mission from the beginning,” Heim says. “After being kicked out of 6 different schools in Paris, I felt it was because I was not understood and that I needed great support. The arts can provide this support. After I came to this country, I felt that there are so many young people in need of support. The arts can do that. In 50 percent we create, and in 50 percent we give back to the community.”

Another endeavor that Heim feels passionate about is the institute’s Veterans Project, where he applies the same principles that go into a Diavolo performance. 

“For the last 2 years, we’ve been working with men and women in the Veterans community,” he says. “That was actually an idea of Jennifer Cheng, who is the coordinator of our Veterans Project. We’ve been creating many different workshops. Out of these workshops we have created this program. On Feb. 23 and 24, we are performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is a very special and unusual thing we are doing. Not only are we bringing in a Diavolo performance, but we are bringing in the program, ‘A Long Journey Home.’ After 4 months of workshops with the Veterans, it has culminated in this performance. The piece starts out with the veterans telling their personal stories, then they will start moving.”

Many graduates of the Diavolo Institute move on to other fields of endeavor in the world of creative dance.

“This is one of the major reasons why I still have this company,” Heim says. “These young women and men who come into this company, so many of them realize this is more than creating a dance piece. It really pushes them in every aspect beyond their limits. I believe in them more than they believe in themselves. I push them to learn about themselves, their weaknesses and strengths. They are learning about creation, to formulate an idea, to speak well. When they are ready to leave Diavolo, they will be ready to climb Mount Everest. Which means they are ready to move onto bigger and better things. That is what this company does for you.”

With Exposure Comes Recognition

Diavolo made its European debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1995, and in 1998, the company opened the performance series at the new Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles. Diavolo’s first full-evening length work, Catapult, was created in 1999, which was also the year of the first full North American tour for the company. In 2002, Diavolo created a second smaller company to perform in a cabaret-style show. 

Diavolo’s most mainstream American exposure occurred in 2017 when they performed in Season 12 of America’s Got Talent. They debuted in Week 3 as the only acrobatic dance group among several dance troupes. In week 2 of the Semi-Finals, Diavolo won the Judges’ Choice Award to advance to the Finals. Heim tends to dismiss the awards and accolades, preferring to savor something more personal.

“I would have to say it is giving back to the community,” he says. “Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing here, what is my purpose here? Is it to put on a theatrical piece, or to give something back to the community? Or is it a combination of giving back to the community with your art?’ I would have to say it is giving back, and working with the schools and the veterans group. When we first started working with them, I had an epiphany moment when I said ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do, that’s why I’m here.’ And that’s why I am doing what I’m doing now.”

Heim and his troupe hope audiences get something more than entertainment and a sense of awe from a Diavolo performance.

“A regular audience usually is a little bit afraid of what we do,” he says. “They get to see men and women on stage who move, who sweat, who are not afraid to bleed, and not afraid to take a chance. We present a new way of dancing, a new way of moving. With our work, I feel we create a bridge between the audience and what is happening on the stage. I would like them to see dance like they have never seen it before, from a different angle. They see dancers on stage who move together, and rely on each other. I want them to enjoy a new way of dancing, and a new way of moving.”

Diavolo: Architecture in Motion will appear at the Kuss Auditorium, 300 S. Fountain Ave., Springfield on February 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $58.00 to $95.00 and can be obtained at TicketOffices.com or by calling 937.328.3874. More information about Diavolo can be found at their website, Diavolo.org.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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