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Life Force

Jacques Heim’s energy, passion, charm and magnanimity are so ruthless that if you were to cage this choreographer in a solid-sided box with only his head peeping out of a hole in the top, he‘d probably still give a brilliant interview, after which you’d swear he had been moving about the room. You‘d say he bounced, he trucked and he cantered. You’d probably even remember the small details of his hands flying, the razor-sharp dart of his fingers as they crash-landed in front of his dancers‘ eyes to demonstrate the “correct” way of performing a certain lacerating gesture. All such actions could radiate from Heim’s Byronic visage alone and from his curiously florid, crazy French way of speaking. He defines irrepressible, and his voracity for life is infectious.

What holds true for Heim as a person holds for his choreography. Heim founded Diavolo Dance Theater in 1992 in Los Angeles right after having received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. Diavolo is the first modern-dance company -- since Bella Lewitzky‘s -- in about two decades to break out of the local scene and find a demand for its audacious, dreamlike, sensual, risk-oriented, romantic, imaginative and acrobatic repertoire outside the United States.

In 1995, Diavolo’s performances at the Edinburgh Festival compelled London‘s Independent critic to proclaim Heim’s magical Tete en L‘Air “Best of the Fest,” while the Guardian critic sanctioned the 10-member troupe of dancer-acrobats by naming it Critic’s Choice. Heim‘s choreography at the Sixth Saitama International Dance Competition in Japan in 1991 garnered him the Special Prize of the Jury. Back home, Heim had already earned the American Dance Festival’s prestigious 1992 Martha Hill Choreography Award, while three Lester Horton Awards from L.A.‘s Dance Resource Center were still to come. Last month, DanceUSA and the James Irvine Foundation named Heim one of eight California choreographers to receive the $30,000 Irvine Dance Fellowship. And this week, on November 4, UCLA Performing Arts premieres a full-length work from him, Catapult: La Comedie Humaine, at Royce Hall.

“It’s difficult, this piece, because it has mostly movement in it,” Heim says, during a rehearsal of Catapult in his well-appointed, impeccably organized, spacious dance studio in Northridge. “You know movement? I stay away from it. Usually.”

Is he kidding? No. Usually, Heim centers his pieces on architectural structures or gymnastic apparatus or a combination of both: gigantic movable doorways, couches with trampolines hidden beneath the cushions, and the like. But in Catapult, the stage is frequently occupied only by dancers, which he states is his so-called private scare tactic -- his way of challenging himself.

“Catapult is my general checkup, like going to the doctor: How am I doing? I don‘t want to go, it’s kind of annoying, but I have to check up. And now I find I want to make a piece all about movement,” he explains. “But I don‘t understand myself what it means. Will I lose my audience?”

A 70-minute-long dance with an intermission, Catapult is accompanied by an original Michel Colombier score. An aluminum Ferris-wheel-like set piece designed by Jeremy Railton (Pee-wee’s Playhouse) assures the presence of at least one signature Heim sideshow element. But otherwise Heim‘s dancers are the chief attraction.

Darren Press and Meegan Godfrey hang from the ceiling of Heim’s Northridge studio. He is upside-down, and she‘s floating on her back in the hoop of his arms, and they are both spinning. Heim films them.

“Jacques, choreograph this leg, please,” says Godfrey. “Too late.” Her leg falls out of its intricate weaving pattern and dangles in the air. On her ankle is a tattoo of Diavolo’s fox logo. Hers is identical to the larger tattoo on the back of Press‘ neck, as well as the one on Heim’s upper arm. “I brand them like Texan cattle when they join my troupe,” says Heim.

Heim asks Godfrey to suggest what to do with her leg in Catapult, what would she feel comfortable with, what keeps the spin going and her from falling out? “My background is in contact improvisation, and so my company works in collaboration. I give direction and then I leave. Sometimes it‘s better that I leave,” he says, sitting down and resting the small video camera on his lap. “When I choreograph, I imagine I am a camera filming. My dance teachers [at Middlebury College] used to say that I choreographed like a cinematographer. I didn’t understand what they meant. But I am starting to understand. A piece for me has to be very visual. Paintings don‘t talk. Maybe there is an emotion behind it. But I don’t start with an intellectual or lyrical point of view. It‘s just purely arts and craft. I want to create a visual spectacle.”

Born in Paris in 1964, Heim got his start with a street-theater group that he co-founded with a friend. He attended Vermont’s Middlebury College as a theater major, but switched to dance after realizing the limitations of performing Tennessee Williams plays with a French accent. His instructors there had been taught by Steve Paxton and David Gordon, illustrious progenitors of postmodern dance from the Judson Church days in New York during the ‘60s.

“When I came to America, the only thing I knew was the movie Fame. I just wanted to be American, so the first dance I made was . . .” he stops himself and shields his eyes with one hand before continuing hesitantly, “Starmaniac -- featuring dancers as Boy George, Michael Jackson, Harrison Ford, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe in a psychiatric hospital.” He looks up. “It used a lot of props. This was my way to be American, to show I love this country. I didn’t love the mentality in Paris. The French don‘t work.”

Press and Godfrey, still suspended from the ceiling, laugh. Press, a vigorous, muscular, ebullient 27-year-old who designs Oakley sunglasses as his day job, calls Heim by one of his company nicknames, “Napoleon.”

“Jacques is obsessed by the work,” says Press. “He gets passionate about it, and sometimes goes into this frenetic craziness -- ’15 times flat out!‘ he’ll shout. So we have to rehearse the piece 15 times more as if we‘re in front of an audience. That’s when we tuck one of our arms into our shirts, salute him and sing out, ‘Vive Napoleon!’”

Heim interrupts: “Napoleon was an interesting character. He was very generous to his soldiers, actually.”

Heim, too, treats his 10 dancers exceptionally well, providing them pay for most of their rehearsal time (rare among Los Angeles dance troupes) and procuring a workmen‘s-compensation plan. As the grandson of Jacques Heim, the fashion designer who invented the first women’s bathing suit to show the belly button (later called the bikini), and as the great-great-grandnephew of Baron de Gunzburg, one of Nijinsky‘s lovers and a patron of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Heim is no stranger to the limelight, affluence, success and the rewards of a well-received good idea. In fact, his sense of purpose seems to be inextricable from his need to please, thrill, entertain and earn his place among his ancestors.

He is willing to sacrifice a lot for these goals. At half past midnight, the interview winds to a close. Heim, who claims he never sleeps, sees me into the car, then retreats back to the studio, where he will screen his video of the day‘s work and prepare more choreography. When he turns to go, the words written in white on the back of his black baseball cap shine like a neon sign in the doorway: “15x flat out.”

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