With flying leaps from impossible set pieces, Diavolo pushes the boundaries of dance

By Christina Campodonico

A scene from Diavolo’s “Passengers” Photo by George Simian

A scene from Diavolo’s “Passengers”
Photo by George Simian

Diavolo is “kind of like the NFL of dance,” says founder and artistic director Jacques Heim, who enthusiastically describes his dancers as “heroes” and “gladiators.”

“It’s intense. A Diavolo creation brings the best out of you and the worst out of you. It brings all your weakness and all your strength, and so suddenly it’s like a surgeon that cuts yourself in half and brings all your insides on the floor, so you become naked to everybody else,” he says of his dancers … figuratively speaking of course.

Even so, the gory image captures the spirit of Diavolo, an L.A.-based dance company with a worldwide reputation for pushing the limits of the human body, bending the laws of physics and tackling the boundaries between buildings and bodies.

“Diavolo has been Los Angeles’ wild child, a company of daredevil dancers leaping and cavorting on pitching wheels, Goliath walls and playground equipment from a super-sized wonderland,” wrote the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of Diavolo’s 20th anniversary. “… Defying gravity doesn’t just look easy. It feels like the human spirit, ever enduring.”

But this sublime transcendence between man and the built environment has not always been effortless, explains Heim, who brings his company’s bold blend of architecture and athleticism to The Broad Stage this weekend to celebrate its 25th anniversary. They will debut a new work called “Passengers,” choreographed by Diavolo dancer Leandro Glory Damasco Jr., and their signature work “Trajectoire” from 1999.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” says Heim, reflecting on the creation of “Trajectoire,” which opens the Broad shows and rocks dancers back and forth on a giant half-moon shaped hull designed by Daniel Wheeler.

“When we build that — ‘Trajectoire’ — and put it in the Diavolo studio, we look at it and say, ‘What the f*ck we going to do with this?’” recalls Heim in his rich French accent.

So they did what artists do — experiment. Heim had dancer Meegan Godfrey, now a professional stuntwoman, hop on the huge rocker and prepare to launch. They tilted the giant crescent-shaped seesaw back and forth, and on the fourth rock Godfrey took flight.

“She flies so high in the air — 20 feet in the air — and crashes into the wall of the studio,” recounts Heim. “She lands on the floor. She was so strong. She stood up with a bloody nose, bruises everywhere and she says, ‘That’s freakin’ awesome! Let’s do it again!’”

Diavolo’s taste for heights, soaring numbers and gigantic playthings hasn’t changed much since its early days, but the method behind the madness has evolved from freewheeling experimentation to fine-tuned research and development, explains Heim, especially after the company was commissioned to develop a trilogy of dance works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2005.

“It really kicked my ass,” says Heim of working on the first part of the triptych. “Before 2005, I was just creating as I was going along in the rehearsal. I was not doing a year to two years of research, hundreds and hundreds of hours by myself trying to compose a piece before the first day of rehearsal. Because I was working with L.A. Phil I had to retrain the way I was working, which then basically innovated the work.”

The first of the three — “Foreign Bodies” set to an original score by Esa-Pekka Salonen — came in 2007, followed by “Fearful Symmetries” to music by John Adams in 2010, and then “Fluid Infinities” to Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3 in 2013. The full-length trilogy made its L.A. debut last year to live music by The New West Symphony at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.

A spirit of collaboration informs Heim’s creative process, which he likens to directing a play rather than choreographing a dance. In fact, he insists that he is not a choreographer.

“I operate exactly like a musical,” says Heim. “When I start directing, I listen to my dancers and give them homework and then a problem to resolve, talk to them about the theme … and even though I feel like this Napoleon, frantic, crazy French director, I do actually listen a lot to not only my dancers, but also my creative team. ”

In other words, it takes a village to put on a Diavolo production. From dancers to designers, no part is too small in Heim’s view, as demonstrated by the way he carefully spells out the name of each and every collaborator he mentions in our interview.

But they have to be up to the task — as intrepid as Heim’s own boundless imagination.

“When my dancer tells me, ‘No, I cannot do it,’ that’s not a language in Diavolo. The word ‘no’ does not exist. The answer is, ‘yes.’ Find a way,” says Heim, who explains that Diavolo is a metaphor for attacking life.

For him, fear is not an option. Only flight.

Diavolo performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets start at $55. Call (310) 434-2000 or visit thebroadstage.com.