‘Architect in motion’: Diavolo creator Jacques Heim builds up dance arts

Diavolo’s “Architecture in Motion” will feature a performance of “Fluid Infinitives.”
Diavolo’s “Architecture in Motion” will feature a performance of “Fluid Infinitives.” Photo provided

Diavolo reinvents dance, reimagines theater and redefines thrills in its genre-bending stage performances. The company, created in 1992 by artistic director Jacques Heim, will return to Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts to present “Architecture in Motion,” featuring the programs “Fluid Infinities” and “Transit Space.”

Diavolo combines movement, ballet, contemporary dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, martial arts and hip hop, and uses abstract and recognizable structures as focal points in which performers come together to confront, challenge and manipulate their environments.

“In a different life, I wish I could be an architect, because I love architecture,” Heim said. “But I really fell in love with this universal language called dance. When I started my dance company, that led to a love for architecture and a love for movement, which then led to Diavolo’s ‘Architecture in Motion’ being created.”

Born and raised in Paris, Heim has been a transformative choreographer for more than 20 years. As a young man, Heim moved to New York and attended Middlebury College in Vermont, where he received his BFA in theater, dance and film. He then moved to England, attended the University of Surrey and later moved back to the United States to attend the California Institute for the Arts.

In addition to his work with Diavolo, Heim has worked extensively with many other companies in dance, theater, television, and special events worldwide.

In the work of Diavolo, Heim said he is interested in the relation and interaction between the human body and architecture, and how it affects us socially, physically and emotionally. The human-to-human interaction as well as the interaction between the dancers and the program’s set pieces elicit a number of concepts and emotions, including fear, danger, survival, chaos, order, deconstruction, reconstruction, destiny, faith and love.

The architectural structure is the main element in Diavolo. The group first comes up with a structure then tries to understand what the structure is about and what the theme is about.

“I don’t pretend I’m an architect, and I don’t pretend I know anything about architecture,” Heim said. “But my language is very similar to an architect, because I talk about material, I talk about functionality, mood, texture, lighting, flow of movements and obstacles. That is why this work is very unusual.”

In addition to the cast of 10 dancers, Heim employs an engineer who builds the structures, a music composer and a choreographer who works on all the pieces with the dancers.

“It’s not dance theater actually; it’s really a new kind of art in a way,” Heim said. “Actually, I don’t call myself a choreographer, and I don’t actually choreograph. I direct all the pieces. You can call me an ‘architect of motion’ because I really came up with the concept. I get inspired by architects, and I get inspired when I walk in many different cities when I travel all over the world.”

Diavolo has toured the world for the past 17 years, and for the longest time, every presenter in the world could not totally describe what the company was doing.

“It’s been the most amazing, exhilarating experience and journey that I started years ago, but at the same time the most complex, challenging, and at times frustrating as well,” Heim said.

In addition to performing, Diavolo also engages in community work and educational outreach, which includes holding classes, workshops, and seminars for children and adults.

In June 2011, 10 Penn State students traveled to Los Angeles to help Heim create “Transit Space” as part of a Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program collaboration called “The Secret Life of Public Spaces.” Diavolo premiered “Transit Space,” a work inspired by skateboard culture, at Penn State in 2012. Next week’s performance will feature an evolved version of the piece, which the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State co-commissioned.

The theme of this piece is about the love of community, the love of family, feeling a presence and feeling alone set to a skateboarding background and rock music. “Transit Space” features a young boy who feels lost and abandoned, who wants to be connected and wants to have a purpose in life, through the language of skateboarding. While Heim’s dancers are not going to skateboard, they manipulate their bodies to mimic the movements of skateboarding.

“It’s very interesting to talk to young skateboarders about why they are doing what they are doing,” Heim said. “Some people think they are disturbing the peace skateboarding all over our cities. But actually they are very much at peace with themselves. The reason they do what they do is because they don’t have a connection with their own family, the parents are on drugs or they don’t have a connection at school. So with skateboarding, they feel a sense of freedom and purpose. That’s what ‘Transit Space’ is about.”

Set to Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 3” and NASA-control-center voiceover, the 2013 production “Fluid Infinities,” is set on an abstract dome with patterns that evoke the craters of the moon, a honeycomb of bees, a shifting brain and an undiscovered starship. The performers explore metaphors of infinite space, continuous movement and humanity’s voyage into an unknown future.

“It has a beautiful structure, a beautiful dome that is kind of the abstract of the moon that resides on top of a stainless steel glass that has the shape of an ellipse,” Heim said. “The light is reflected on the body of the dancer and creates a very special, warm mood. The theme is about your next chapter in life. It’s very spiritual and quite beautiful.”

Heim said he admires Penn State and he loves bringing his work to a school and community that appreciates and puts a significant emphasis on the arts and art education.

“I’m honored to have this relationship with this amazing university, because it is one of the top universities in North America that understand this mission that the arts are a major part of our culture,” he said.