Shaken but not deterred, Diavolo dancers to commemorate Northridge earthquake

jacques heim, artistic director, diavolo dance

Ed. note: This story by Debra Levine, commissioned the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Arts, is republished with permission.

On January 17, 1994, slumberers across the city of Los Angeles were awakened by a heaving jolt. It was 4:31 a.m. (This writer was hurled from bed to floor.) A 6.7-magnitude earthquake put much of L.A. on its side. But the CSUN campus, perilously close to the epicenter, was turned upside down. The Northridge Earthquake so impacted CSUN that some state officials proposed shuttering the campus altogether.

Three decades later, on January 17, 2024, The Soraya, the jewel of the re-built CSUN campus, is producing a special event in commemoration of that terrifying trauma—casting it in the best possible light. Soraya Executive and Artistic Director Thor Steingraber envisaged a dance company as a cathartic vehicle capable of embodying the immense human vulnerability of a natural disaster of that scale. He tasked Los Angeles choreographer Jacques Heim, the founder and creative director of Diavolo, the popular gravity-defying dance troupe, with an evening-length multimedia work. Heim’s brief was to use Northridge quake as a metaphor for our need for human interconnectivity.

Founder and creative director of Diavolo, Jacques Heim Photo Credit: George Simian

Heim, 59, is a man of action. In tackling this assignment he assembled a veritable think tank of collaborators at his industrial-looking dance studio at The Brewery in downtown Los Angeles. Foremost in the team are the Diavolo dancers themselves—all in possession of an array of skills as tumblers, wall-climbers, gravity defiers, aerialists and acrobats. Their verymétier is steeped in physical interdependence and trust. Providing a sizzling new soundscape, live on stage with the dancers, will be a renowned jazz duo, percussionist Antonio Sánchez (Birdman) and vocalist Thana Alexa.

Existencia, 30 Years After the Northridge Earthquake, an original commission by The Soraya, will have its world premiere, on the precise date of the anniversary, Wednesday January 17, 2024 with a repeat performance Friday, January 19. Both shows are at eight p.m.

At its startup, Diavolo had a footprint in Northridge. Steingraber was aware of this fact having presented the company on six separate occasions, twice at The Los Angeles Music Center, four times at The Soraya.

“I had barely started my dance company,” said Heim, who cut a striking figure while addressing a group of The Soraya’s keenest patrons attending an open rehearsal of Existencia. A longtime French expatriate in Los Angeles, Heim was then a fresh graduate of Cal Arts. “We were in a rented dance studio on Parthenia Street.” But, he said, “I was living in Hollywood. Most of the tenants in our apartment building did not know each other,” he said. “Soon we were sharing water, food, blankets, and flashlights. I felt a sense of joy in sharing. But it left me wondering why we had to have danger to come closer as neighbors.”

Heim’s long mane of hair has greyed since those days, but he is still a figure of youthful fascination. Speaking in lightly fractured franglais, he says, “Existencia is about disaster. It’s how a community comes together in a disaster.” And, he warns, “It’s intense.”

“In the old days,” mused Jacques Heim, “It was just me and the dancers.”  For Existencia, Heim has gathered a veritable army of collaborators – designers, engineers, co-choreographers, and a dramaturg.

For Existencia’s mise-en-scène, production designer Adam Davis has created a metallic cityscape from large three-dimensional structures, which loom on stage as buildings. A huge, tumbling “cube/cage” echoes the shifting earth; there are also ramps, perched from which, aerialist dancers tipple into black air space. Strapped into “single-point” harnesses, they whizz by each other in flight.

Breaking down that section of Existencia, both mechanically and aesthetically, at a September rehearsal at The Soraya was its creator, Existencia co-choreographer Amelia Rudolph, the respected founder/director of the Oakland, California aerial-dance tribe, Bandaloop. Rudolph was brought in by Diavolo Associate Director Jim Vincent. (Now an Angeleno, Vincent is the former artistic director of both Nederlands Dans Theatre and Hubbard Street Dance.) “In a crisis, time gets suspended,” notes Vincent. “So we wanted aerial moments.” Rudolph came up with an eight-minute airborne pas de deux effectuated by a see-sawing, human counter-balancing system. Two dancers, one, each, stage left and right, in the audience’s plain sight, perform this function of providing ballast for the dancers in the air, by leaning in or away from a pulley.

Rudolph, since 1991, has been a self-described “harness-based dancer” (an alternate label, “vertical dancer”): “You discover the mechanics when the counter-balancers are exposed. You can see the functioning of how one human being lifts another,” says Rudolph. “That is critical to the magic of the duet.” Connor Senning, a longtime Diavolo dancer who is one of the aerialists, remarks that he “loves the challenge of dealing with gravity in a new way.”

France Nguyen, a former dancers with Nederlands Dans Theater, fills the role of dramaturg. “My job,” says Nguyen, “is to create a storyline of a disparate community coming together as one.” That’s the view from the ground. But at a higher, more conceptual level, she says, Existencia illustrates that we all are “trying to find connection in a chaotic world.”  Nguyen and her collaborators used author Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 bestseller, A Paradise Built in Hell, as inspiration for its examination of how five global natural disasters engendered close communities. The drive to connect “is in us all,” says Nguyen with certitude.

Existencia has been in development since June 2022, as Steingraber began contemplating the impending anniversary. “Thor does it right,” said Heim. “He gave us a period of R&D that does not exist in our domain.” The fact is, Existencia aligns with The Soraya’s own creation story. The revered, community-binding, luminescent theater arose from the parched earth left by the Northridge Quake. It took less than twenty years to design, build, and dedicate the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Performing Arts Center. Existencia, a theatrical rumination fostered by The Soraya’s collaboration with a dynamic choreographer and his creative team, one hopes, will refresh our sense of unity and resilience that we may take as a road map today.

Diavolo: Existencia | The Soraya | Jan 17, 19

Dance critic Debra Levine who previously wrote feature articles about “Existencia” on behalf of The Soraya, is pleased to share her reaction to the unique showcase here.

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