Dancing Gladiators

Diavolo's athletic artists master movement styles from modern dance to skateboarding

A quick scan of the bios of the 10 performers in Diavolo Dance Theater reveals that dance is hardly all they've done.

Ezra Masse-Mahar has been a competitive diver, Shauna Martinez a cheerleading champ. Chisa Yamaguchi was a belly dancer and Garret Wolf an elite gymnast, and Chisa Yamaguchi has been both belly dancer and gymnast. Amy Tuley was a tumbler and Brandon Grimm a master of circus arts.

That's the way their boss likes it.

"I call them strong gladiators," Diavolo artistic director Jacques Heim said in his French-accented English, speaking by cellphone as he barreled down an L.A. freeway last week. Most of his dancers have BFAs in dance, but to work for Diavolo they must combine "gymnastics, acrobatics, ballet, modern, contemporary and hip-hop. The dancers need to have all those movements, and be elegant and beautiful on stage."

Plus, they can't be afraid of heights and they must be strong enough to "build and take down the structures" so crucial to the dances.

This Saturday night, Nov. 9, at Centennial Hall, the gladiators will be jumping, sailing, sliding—and dancing—on two enormous movable creations. In "Trajectoire," one of Diavolo's signature pieces, the structure they'll be diving over is a galleon, a boatlike object that's 14 feet long, 12 feet wide and 5 feet high.

And in "Transit Space," before they get to the dancing, they'll roll out the curving ramps and aerial catwalks of a fantasy skateboard park. Then they'll ride them, mimicking the flights and swoops and sashays of skaters—without the boards.

All of Heim's pieces revolve around "architecture in motion," he said. "I wouldn't know what to do with a bare stage."

Heim traces his interest in bodies moving through architectural space to his days as a street kid in Paris, where he was born.

"I was a rebel," he said. "I got kicked out of six schools."

Add that outlaw attitude to a divorce that split his family in two, and he sought out a new community—of kids. He started up a street theater troupe and the gang performed outside. But in this case, "outside" was Paris.

"Paris is a gorgeous city," he said, echoing the words of a thousand songwriters. He reveled in the throngs of people walking its rues and avenues, and their everyday movements eventually found their way into his dances.

When it came time for college, his family insisted that he get away from his troubles. In 1983 he landed at Vermont's Middlebury College with plans to study theater. But his English was so poor—hardly up to the challenge of Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, he said—that he switched to dance, an art form that requires no dictionary.

"I fell in love with movement," he said. "Movement is universal."

He already knew that he loved architecture, and "I slowly started to understand what I wanted to do: structure plus movement."

After college, he got more dance training in England, and had the opportunity to see "all the companies in Europe coming through London." Finally, at CalArts outside L.A., where he got an MFA in choreography, he embraced collaboration. After graduation, he set about creating a new company that would combine all his passions.

In 1992, he started Diavolo in Los Angeles. Like a Hollywood director, he orchestrates the troupe's dancers, the shifting structures, the music and the voice-overs.

"I come up with the process. I direct the piece. I drive the movement like an architect designing a structure."

But the dancers, he said, create their own steps.

"I collaborate with the dancers, and the dancers create their own movement, absolutely and completely."

In his outside work, he sometimes creates all the choreography. He composed the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, for instance, and in other show-bizzy gigs he helped orchestrate the movement in the arena show Ice Age Live! in London and directed the opening ceremony of the 16th Asian Games in China.

At Centennial Hall on Saturday, Diavolo's five women and five men will perform two pieces that they've choreographed. Each is just 30 minutes long: "They're pretty demanding on the dancers," Heim explained.

"Transit Space," from 2012, was inspired by the skateboard culture Diavolo discovered in Southern California. The lonely kids gathering to create a new family of kickflippers and silverfishers reminded him of his street amis in Paris doing improv theater.

"The reason they do this is to be part of a community," he said. "On the skateboard, they feel the sense of friends." And like his dancers, "They push beyond their limits."

Skateboards without wheels make an appearance, as a metaphor, he said, but the dancers don't actually skate. When "Transit Space" had its L.A. debut last year, Los Angeles Times critic Laura Bleiberg said that it had moved beyond Heim's circus-y razzle-dazzle of the past. Declaring it to be his "most thoughtful and expressive" piece to date, she wrote, "The focus is on the dancers, who by using their bodies, become freer."

Dressed in street-clothes costumes, the performers move to an original rock score by Paul James Prendergast that has a "little bit of a U2 feel," Heim said. The music is layered with a recorded spoken-word poem by Steve Connell.

The closing dance, "Trajectoire" (Trajectory), from 1999 is "about destiny and destination," he said. "It's a lyrical, elegant piece," to music by Nathan Wang.

The performers work so hard on the boat structure that sometimes they get seasick, Heim joked.

"The dancers rock the galleon structure back and forth. They get catapulted into the air. And—hopefully—they get caught."

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