“Diavolo is not a modern dance company,” declares Jacques Heim, the French founder, artistic director and guiding visionary of the Los Angeles-based troupe that over the last 20 years has staked a serious claim for the city in the international dance world.
The admission is especially surprising as it comes just after Helm has run his ten dancers through the company's latest physically punishing and dizzyingly acrobatic work at its downtown Brewery rehearsal space on a stifling August afternoon.
The piece is called Fluid Infinities, the third and final part of a major, multiyear commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is getting its world premiere — and sole public L.A. performance — on Thursday, September 5, at the Hollywood Bowl. It's part of a program called “Music by Glass — Dance by Diavolo,” featuring Philip Glass' 1995 “Symphony No. 3,” conducted by Bramwell Tovey.
As the dripping dancers file off the rehearsal floor to strip out of their perspiration-sodden leotards, Heim's statement begins to ring true. The extraordinarily muscular and broad-shouldered troupe of five men and five women looks like it might well be more at home in a boxing ring than in a dance studio.
The fight analogy is apt. Because though the troupe employs a vocabulary at least partly drawn from modern dance and even ballet, the overriding theme present in any Diavolo work is that of the human body in an epic struggle with its environment.
And with Diavolo, that environment can take many forms. In fact, the company's longstanding signature is the sculptural, often puzzle-like piece of monumental onstage architecture with which the dancers interact like a pack of precocious acrobats on a playground jungle gym.
In the case of Fluid Infinities, that structure (a collaboration between designer Adam Davis, designer-engineer Tina Trefethen and fabricator Mike McCluskey) takes the form of an outsized fiberglass quarter sphere pocked with crater-like portholes. At various moments during the performance, it seems to metamorphose from an alien spaceship to a distant moon to some sort of modular, 1950s house of the future, and finally to a kind of mirror image of the Hollywood Bowl itself.
The performances during rehearsal were both breathtaking — with the kind of vertiginous, 15-foot leaps through the air that definitely shouldn't be tried at home — and packed with a visual wit that at times approaches the slapstick. Heim admits that Fluid Infinities includes surreptitious homages to silent cinema, including Charlie Chaplin and George Méliès.
How Heim prefers to describe Diavolo's work is as a kind of cinematic “architecture in motion.”
“I'm not really looking for new invention of movement,” the director continues, “but what is the relationship of the human body against the environment? How fragile are we? How powerful are we? What are we saying about our environment? What are we saying in the space that we are in?”
Whatever Diavolo is saying, when LA Phil Vice President of Artistic Planning Chad Smith awarded Diavolo the multiyear commission, he also handed Heim the mammoth canvas of the Hollywood Bowl and major orchestral works by Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams and Philip Glass with which to say it. Heim immediately envisioned a sweeping, three-part narrative called L'Espace du Temps (Space of Time) that would trace the rise of humankind against the very cosmos itself.
Part one of the trilogy, 2007's Foreign Bodies (sharing its name with the score written by former LA Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen), portrayed the biological infiltration of the geometrically pristine universe, a geometry represented by a kind of giant Rubik's Cube that deconstructed into three pyramids.
Part two, 2010's Fearful Symmetries, set to the music of minimalist composer John Adams, again visited the cube, but this time in a representation of the mechanical, industrial world with the dancers as abstract factory workers. The cube dismantled into six smaller parts that were reconstructed into multiple combinations as if to solve a deeper puzzle. According to Heim, it was the mystery of, “Where do we come from? Where are we going?” Instead of reassembling as the original cube, the pieces were eventually discarded. The answers, the work suggested, were not to be found in the material world but within ourselves.
Heim says that Fluid Infinities begins where Fearful Symmetries ended. “You see [the dancers] in these blue outfits [as] abstract factory workers,” he explains, “coming out of where they left Fearful Symmetries, from the place they were in to this new place. It is not Earth. It is out of space. It is maybe an inner-space — it is however you want to interpret it — eventually to go even beyond.”
The hopeful note of the piece mirrors the optimism Heim himself expresses for the future of Diavolo, for whom the L.A. Philharmonic commissions have proved a major turning point in the company's artistic maturation.
Prior to 2007, Heim says, he would begin with a structure and then, in collaboration with the dancers, choreograph around it before bringing in actual music. Now the music comes first, and with it both a newfound sense of discipline and creative freedom.
“I was just a French frog Napoleon running around, saying 'Let's do some structure! Let's move on it!'” he quips. “Now I'm more analytic, more thorough — doing homework and preparing. … So the work is getting better since 2007. So it's exciting to see that, because I see the growth and I feel it. So it's about time. It's about time.”
Diavolo Dance Theater premieres Fluid Infinities Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.
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