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Diavolo finding inspiration in skateboarding culture

The L.A. dance company's new work in progress, 'Transit Space,' can be seen on the Music Center plaza as it develops. It is part of the Pacific Standard Time venture.

November 06, 2011|By Susan Josephs, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Director Jacques Heim, third from left, at Diavolo Dance Theatre's rehearsal of their new work, "Transit Space," at The Diavolo Space.
Director Jacques Heim, third from left, at Diavolo Dance Theatre's… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Jacques Heim, the 47-year-old artistic director of the dance company Diavolo, is spending a good chunk of his time lately hanging out with a group of teenage skateboarders. He watches them zoom up and fly off specially designed ramps in his company's warehouse-like space in downtown Los Angeles and, at appropriate moments, tosses them a lot "of random questions," he says. "I'll ask, 'What does fear mean to you?' Or 'Why would you abandon movement in midair?' And I've learned that the word 'commitment' to these kids is as powerful to them as it is to any adult," he says.

"It's been cool to incorporate skateboarding with dance," said Seth Milner, 16, noting that his mother made him take ballet until a year and half ago. "In skating, each person has their own style, like a choreographer."

Since 2006, after choreographing a production called "The Stones" for the Center Theatre Group, Heim has been fascinated by skateboarding and how its movements and ethos might transform into potent dance imagery.

Some five years later, he is preparing to decamp to the large outdoor plaza at the Music Center with his troupe of 10 dancers and three "skateboarding advisors." Collectively and publicly, they will continue to develop "Transit Space," an ambitious work in progress, during Dance at the Music Center's first artist-in-residence program, happening in conjunction with the region-wide, Getty-sponsored venture "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980."

Packed with metaphors about navigation and finding direction, both through public space and one's own life, "Transit Space" features Heim's signature mode of choreography, whereby Diavolo's dancers interact with large architectural structures and other set-design components through highly athletic and often physically risky movement vocabularies. It also includes text by spoken word artist Steve Connell, motion sensor technology designed by David Beaudry and a set by Sibyl Wickersheimer consisting of four skateboard ramps with detachable parts.

For Renae Williams Niles, the director of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, the piece killed two birds with one stone — she had spent several years searching for a company with which to conduct a first-time residency program and for a dance that might fit the midcentury art theme of Pacific Standard Time.

"I saw the possibilities of this work, not just how it fit with PST but with moving forward the Music Center's vision of bringing in new audiences," says Niles, who co-commissioned "Transit Space" with Penn State, where the piece will be given its official premiere in April — with no plans so far for an L.A. performance. (The company's next L.A. appearance will be a different program at the Valley Performing Arts Center in February.)

"Diavolo has an international presence and level of artistry that fit with our series, but it also has a certain flexibility and willingness to engage with audiences in creative ways."

Before approaching the PST directors, Niles researched the history of skateboarding, which surfers invented in the 1950s. It died out in the 1960s and rose to new heights of pop cultural popularity in the 1970s. She saw a kinship between skateboarders and graffiti artists and how both groups "had great impact on our culture. And I see such beauty in the way that skateboarders use their bodies," she says, comparing what they do to a dancer's drive to "break through space. Whether you're doing it on a stage with your body or on a sidewalk with a skateboard, to me, it's all art."

Joan Weinstein, the Getty Foundation's deputy director and co-director of PST, saw "some interesting connections" to be made between a dance referencing skateboarding and the midcentury art celebrated in PST. Skateboarding culture "definitely impacted the visual artists of the period. And we also wanted to include a component of PST that could show how new work and contemporary artists have been inspired by the PST era," she says.

Having kicked off with a screening Saturday of the skateboard documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," the residency culminates with three open rehearsals of "Transit Space" beginning this Saturday on the Music Center Plaza. It's free to the public and Heim intends to behave as he always does when he's in choreographer-director mode. "I'm never afraid of showing works in progress because I'm not afraid if something doesn't work," he says. "I always want to know what people are thinking and if what I'm doing is visually interesting to them."

For the French-born Heim, who founded Diavolo in 1992 and has achieved international success through extensive touring, the residency also poses a plum opportunity to strengthen the troupe's local visibility. After years of performing "all over the world, I realized, 'Wait a minute, I'm from L.A. and I'm not connecting to my own community,'" he says. "This is wrong."

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