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Reinventing the wheel

Choreographer Jacques Heim long imagined the centerpiece of his 'DreamCatcher.' Then it had to be realized.

October 12, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf

We all have dreams, but one of Jacques Heim's long-cherished desires involves a 5,000-pound, 16-foot rotating aluminum wheel. This behemoth, the staging ground for nine fearless dancers and 90 minutes' worth of heart-stopping movement, is at the heart of the choreographer's newest piece, appropriately dubbed "DreamCatcher."

The work -- and prop -- will debut Friday and Saturday in appearances at Cal State Long Beach's Carpenter Performing Arts Center by the Diavolo Dance Theater, before the 11-year-old troupe leaves its L.A. base for a 14-city tour. Heim, the company's artistic director, became interested in the Native American dreamcatcher symbol (a spider web that traps nightmares) years ago. He has never thought small, but even for Diavolo, which has racked up nine Lester Horton Awards and is known for flamboyant props, the structure is a record-setter.

It was designed by Horton Award winner Adam Olson Davis and engineered and manufactured by McCluskey Ltd., an auto restoration and metal fabrication firm in Torrance, at a cost of $89,000.

Says Davis: "It was about designing something that was climbable in all directions. It's portable architecture -- it needs to assemble and come apart quickly. There's also precision involved, because you're dealing with real bodies swinging in the air."

To accommodate Heim, company owner Mike McCluskey made a wheel that breaks down into four segments and is mounted on two pylons. These, in turn, are each equipped with three casters for movability. Precision, McCluskey says, comes into play with a specially designed hydraulic braking system that locks the mechanism at specific angles. This allows the dancers to perform on, around, through and above the wheel, which has rungs 18 inches apart and rotates 360 degrees.

"For safety," McCluskey notes, "there's double brakes and double locks. In the center of the wheel is the web -- 36 web strands that go into 36 ratcheted straps -- a device that allows the dancers to attach and tighten the web and is also removable."

Add to that 24 spotlights embedded in the wheel, a removable center "knot," ropes, harnesses and the occasional puff of smoke for atmosphere, and you've got a 21st century Rube Goldberg contraption.

To Monica Campbell, who has danced with Diavolo for five years and is also its rehearsal director, the structure is pure Diavolo: "It's the most dangerous piece we've ever worked with. It's 100% focus, 100% awareness. And in the midst of that, it's being able to perform your heart out with ultimate physicality. It's definitely a great ride."

It's also everything Heim wished for, even though the company had to buy two manual cranes to erect the prop for each gig. "The more intricate and bigger the structure," Heim says, "the more challenges it gives.

"But we deal with it. At the same time we push ourselves, we're also learning about car brakes and fluid."

-- Victoria Looseleaf

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