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Diavolo: intensity cubed

Central to the hyper-physical company's newest work are a 7-by-12-foot box and an energetic Esa-Pekka Salonen composition.

September 02, 2007|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

Jacques Heim, artistic director of the risk-intensive, hyper-physical dance troupe Diavolo, happens upon a small children's block in an elementary classroom cum dressing room at the Aspen District Theater, a venue in a school complex where his L.A.-based company is performing. Unlike choreographers such as Mark Morris, whose work begins with the music, or Merce Cunningham, for whom steps come first, the Paris-born Heim embarks upon choreography with an idea for the set.

But forget about scrims, painted backdrops or sedentary sculptures. Heim's movement vocabulary is built around custom-designed architectural props. Since he founded Diavolo in 1992, the troupe's structures have included a 5,000-pound, 16-foot rotating aluminum wheel, a scary-looking vertical pegboard that could serve as the centerpiece at an S&M soiree, and a 14-by-17-foot rocking boat. And the little wooden block in a schoolroom sets the wheels in his mind turning . . . .

In July 2005, Diavolo wowed several members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic administration with a mini-demonstration of what it could do. Now a deal is finalized that is another in the series of alliances between the orchestra and Los Angeles artists that previously resulted in the acclaimed "Tristan Project," featuring videos by Bill Viola.



According to Chad Smith, the Philharmonic's vice president of artistic planning, music director Esa-Pekka Salonen "had suggested engaging artists in our own community performing to an extant work -- Stravinsky's 'Firebird,' perhaps. We'd already brought dance back to the Bowl with great companies in the past five years -- Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, performing onstage with the Philharmonic. But since Esa-Pekka is so committed to living composers, he thought, 'Why don't we take a piece and animate it?' "


Heim's latest gigantic stage prop -- an 800-pound, 7-by-12-foot aluminum cube that seems to have more configurations than Mr. Rubik's -- is being constructed at McCluskey Ltd., an auto restoration and metal fabrication firm. Having taken cues from Heim's kiddie-block musings, a team including designer Tina Trefethen and McCluskey owner and engineer Mike McCluskey is variously measuring, sanding and welding the centerpiece of Diavolo's most prestigious project to date.

Titled "Foreign Bodies," after a 20-minute piece composed by Salonen, the three-movement opus will be conducted by him and danced by Diavolo in its world premiere Sept. 4 at the Hollywood Bowl. With 99 members of the Philharmonic playing a score that Times music critic Mark Swed dubbed terrific when the orchestra gave it its U.S. premiere in 2002 ("It bursts forth with energy, color and intelligence"), the 10 performers' soaring, climbing, sliding and wriggling -- and their manipulation of the cube -- promise to unite the cerebral and the visceral.

Written in 2001, "Foreign Bodies" -- which has never been danced to before -- was imagined by Salonen as a "ballet." And though the Heim troupe's moves are a far cry from the abstract pointe work of, say, Balanchine, the music is allowing the choreographer to create an alien, superhuman world that is also emotionally accessible.


Heim and Salonen meet for the first time. The choreographer admits that the music presents numerous challenges, among them rhythmic extremes that require metronomic beat-counting, definitely not Heim's MO. He then presents his view of the work, including how the cube will function within it.

Salonen, Heim says later, was sold. "Since Esa-Pekka comes from Finland and I'm from France, the piece is also a metaphor for being a foreigner in a different country," he says. "Where do you belong? Where do you come from? What's happening inside of you? It became very personal."

It will also prove the most rigorous work of Heim's career. Creating a scant six seconds in the third movement, for example, will wind up taking him an hour and a half.


The cube takes shape(s). Sleek and reminiscent of a New Age meditation chamber, it must be impact-resistant, scratch-proof and easily maneuverable. As workers refine the bronze-colored structure, it gleams in the afternoon sun, the square holes dotting its surface resembling windows in a 21st century abode.

But fingerprints pose a problem. The notion of Windex offering corporate sponsorship is jokingly discussed. "We can't use 409," says Trefethen, "so before the show we'll do touch-ups with paint. Seriously, we began talking about this a year ago, and it took five days just to build an architectural model. Most people have no idea you can cut a cube into three parts, but we applied the principles of trigonometry, and the results are equilateral triangles or pyramids."

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