At first, Artistic Director Jacques Heim struggled to describe what his dance company, Diavolo, actually does.
Then he hit upon the expression “architecture as motion.”
Based in downtown Los Angeles, Diavolo pairs innovative choreography with elaborate set pieces. A typical performance might find dancers sliding down skateboard ramps, traversing a staircase filled with trapdoors or clambering over the ever-shifting segments of a massive metal cube.
“Our philosophy starts with the interaction and relationship between the human body and the architectural environment — how it is affecting us physically, emotionally, mentally,” Heim said.
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“It’s about the human struggle, the human condition,” he continued. “It is about how fragile and powerful we are. It’s about the struggle and the survival. It’s about the destiny and the destination.”
Born and raised in Paris, Heim moved from France to the United States in 1983.
“At that time, my English was so bad (that) nobody could understand me,” Heim recalled. “Some friends said to me, ‘Jacques, you can take some dance classes. At least (then) you don’t have to speak.’ ”
That’s when Heim discovered his two loves: architecture and movement.
He combined both passions when he founded Diavolo in 1992. (The group’s name is inspired in part by the Spanish word for “day” and the Latin word for “I fly.”)
“We’re not wholly a pure modern dance company,” he explained, rather an “acrobatic dance company” that merges different “movement vocabularies” such as ballet, hip hop, gymnastics and martial arts.
Heim, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Vermont’s Middlebury College and a master’s degree in choreography from the California Institute of the Arts, jokingly calls himself “the black sheep of dance.” As such, his creative process differs from most choreographers.
“I don’t stand in front of a mirror in a studio and look at the movement,” he explained. Instead, he starts with a sketch.
“I draw lines. I draw abstract shapes and I see how it affects me,” explained the artistic director, who works with architects and engineers to turn his design into reality. Then it’s his dancers’ turn.
“I tell them, ‘Go play on that structure and discover what you (can) do with it,’” he said. “Trust, teamwork and individualism, those are our key words. I trust my dancers. I push them beyond their own limitations. …”
Each 30-minute collaborative piece takes three to four months to come to fruition.
Diavolo is currently touring with two pieces: “Fluid Infinities” and “Trajectoire.”
Part of the trilogy “L’Espace du Temps (The Space of Time),” “Fluid Infinities” finds the dancers exploring a dome-like structure pockmarked with round holes and set atop an oval stainless steel stage. Set to “Symphony No. 3” by Philip Glass, the piece explores metaphors of infinite space and continuous motion with movements that are sensual, ritualistic and repetitive.
“Trajectoire,” which deals with ideas of balance, destiny and destination, has at its center a giant semicircular rocker. Choreographing the visceral, organic piece proved challenging, Heim said, because the back-and-forth motions initially made his dancers seasick — or worse.
“The first time we catapulted someone in the air, they crashed into a wall,” the choreographer recalled.
“Stitches, broken fingers, broken ribs or broken toes — those are a regular routine for us,” he said. “At the emergency room, they know each other by first names.”
Comparing Diavolo dancers to gladiators, Heim acknowledged that the dance company is not for the faint-hearted or the weak-willed.
“It is absolutely, completely intense in every aspect — mentally, physically, emotionally,” he said.
But all that effort comes with a big payoff.
“By the end of the day, when the curtain finally rises up and you face the audience, it’s fun because you did something unbelievable and you pushed yourself,” he said. “There’s something heroic about (that).”
If you go
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$24 to $58
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org