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Opening a Door to Movement

Jacques Heim teaches the art of motion, and his Diavolo Dance Theater lives by it to reflect 'the absurdity of everyday life.'

February 09, 1997|Victoria Looseleaf | Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Inside a 3,000-square-foot Northridge warehouse, sandwiched between Al's Auto Body and a stretch of doughnut shops and nail parlors, Jacques Heim and his 11-member Diavolo Dance Theater are running riot with 10 doors that have just been delivered. Bundled up to ward off the cold rains that are pounding Southern California, the troupe is exploring the movement possibilities that will become the work "Te^te a Claque" (Slap Head), a quintessential Heim opus filled with artful whimsy and literal headbanging that will debut in a full-evening collection of three pieces called "La Serie des Te^tes" at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall next weekend.

The free-standing beechwood doors, designed by company member Roger Webb--some as high as 15 feet, some half-size, some that open like Dutch doors, some that revolve--look at first like everyday "Ozzie and Harriet" props. But with their steel supports and wheels--and given the ensemble's gymnastics--the tableau is more postmodern Oz than good neighbor "Ozzie" terrain.

One dancer swings over, under and around the revolving door, repeatedly banging his nose on the flat panel; another, a former gymnast with a shaved head and body tattoos, straddles the half-door as if it were a pommel horse. Aggressively hurling herself around the frame, she finally comes to a halt, her head seemingly disembodied atop the door as if it were on a chopping block.

The small, solidly built Heim constantly observes, prowling the studio and interjecting comments in a beguiling French accent more akin to Louis Jourdan than someone whose work has something of an S&M tinge, in which injuries, like the broken toe Heim currently sports, are commonplace.

Heim cautions one dancer to use a mat; he asks another, "Can you jump through it . . . fly through it?" before pronouncing: "It totally kills."

Welcome to the world of Hyperdance--where moving bodies meet immovable objects to make a peculiarly '90s genre of dance.

Like all of Heim's work, "La Serie des Te^tes" is all about risk--the combination of hyper-athletic action, based on an everyday movement vocabulary, and architectural environments. It's quite purposefully the dance equivalent of dodging bullets while negotiating traffic on the 405.

Consider Heim's work "D.2.R.-I" and "D.2.R.-II" (1995-96), where dancers maneuver on a giant vertical board, hurling themselves between steel pegs and rope loops like human pinballs. Or "Te^te en l'Air" (Head in the Sky) and "Te^te au Carre" (Head in the Square), both part of the "Te^te" series that will be performed at UCLA. The former takes place on a giant staircase, studded with trapdoors, creating a commuter's nightmare for briefcase toting dancers using sleds, skis and tires to animate the ritual; the latter has performers navigating through a large metal cage--jungle gym as city infrastructure--where physical safety is at issue.

This sort of dance is not uniquely Southern Californian but has roots in the works of Pilobolus, in early Trisha Brown pieces involving harnessed dancers suspended from the ceiling, and in Molissa Fenley's stamina-driven training techniques. In Heim's hands, the extreme physicality of Hyperdance is used to explore the ways we cope in an increasingly dangerous world. He cites the 1994 Northridge earthquake as a metaphor.

"For me, I had the best time right after the earthquake, when everybody started to share things--cigarettes, water," he says. "Because when chaos and a state of survival happen, people come together. The work with the company is like that--we create outrageous structures and we try to do things on them. There's a feeling of survival . . . support."

Dark as Heim's iconoclastic work seems, it is tinged with equal parts humor and irony. The rehearsal yields sight gags: one be-robed dancer balances a lit candle on his head; another bench presses a door; yet another moves through his door as if in a Feydeau farce. "Te^te a Claque," the choreographer notes, involves the "implications of crossing the thresholds we encounter daily, and the ways we literally and figuratively open and close doors within our personal relationships." All true, it seems, provided the relationships in question are the Flying Wallendas meeting Olympian Kerry Strug.

Heim, born in 1964, comes to Hyperdance via a background in street theater in his native Paris, where climbing atop Peugeots in quest of drama was typical. He then pursued a formal dance education in England, Vermont and at CalArts, where he received a master's degree in choreography in 1991 and was the only student ever accepted without an audition.

Cristyne Lawson, dean of dance at CalArts for the past 20 years, decided to accept Heim "because he had a very creative mind and I was interested in the things he was talking about. He had incredible concepts and ideas about movements, [but] I could never get him to attend technique classes. He can certainly move," she laughs, "but his priority is to get other people to move."

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