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Diavolo: intensity cubed

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.

MARCH 2006, ASPEN, COLO.

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MAY 2006, WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL

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?’ ”

MARCH 5, 2007, McCLUSKEY LTD., TORRANCE

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.

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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.

APRIL 6, DISNEY HALL

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.

MAY 2, McCLUSKEY LTD.

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.

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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.”

McCluskey -- who’s worked with Diavolo since 1999, when he designed the kinetic ship -- says that apart from guaranteeing the performers’ safety, he had to fulfill three design criteria: “The dancers need a climbing wall, a sliding face and a rolling piece. Combine these elements into one structure that doesn’t weigh too much and can easily be transported, and everybody’s happy.”

MAY 7, DIAVOLO STUDIO, BREWERY ARTS COMPLEX

The cube arrives at the 6,000-square-foot space where dancers can begin familiarizing themselves with it. In typical fashion, Heim cracks, “I’m worried, because rehearsals are going so well. We’ve already got eight minutes of the first movement finished.”

MAY 18, DIAVOLO STUDIO, WEEK 2 OF REHEARSALS

The Philharmonic’s Smith and Arvind Manocha, Philharmonic vice president and general manager of the Bowl and presentations (he has since been promoted to chief operating officer of the L.A. Philharmonic Assn.), view the in-progress work.

After the opening bars of Salonen’s score boom with percussion and pulsing brass, arms jauntily appear through the cube’s holes. As if an egg were cracking open to reveal new life, heads and bodies emerge to the accompaniment of swelling strings. Then, in a gasp-worthy moment, the cube breaks apart. Sisyphus-like, the dancers push the deconstructed sections together to create a pyramid in this mutating landscape.

Afterward, Smith, clearly excited, explains that “Foreign Bodies” started as a concert piece with dance grafted on. “And since the nature of the work is the inorganic becoming organic,” he points out, “the cube also takes on a life of its own.”

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JUNE 1, DIAVOLO STUDIO, SALONEN’S FIRST PEEK

Heim, graying hair in a ponytail, is anxious. He gives last-minute notes to the troupe as they await the arrival of the maestro and his posse -- in this case, just Smith.

On a schedule tighter than a dancers’ abs, the duo enter. Salonen is introduced, seats are taken, places called. As the dancers perform astonishing feats of balance, strength and agility with what can only be called unmitigated faith, the cube becomes their shelter, their playground, their raison d'être.

In addition to the first movement, several minutes of the second, which begins slowly and oozes eroticism, have also been choreographed. The performers’ arms and legs create a tangled, sexy tableau.

The music fades into applause. Salonen speaks.

“When I wrote this, I considered it a kind of ballet. But so far, the only ballet is me conducting it. This,” he exclaims, “is a vast improvement. I love the approach. The physicality comes through, but it doesn’t follow every turn of phrase. There is a sense of danger. Bravo.” Then, in an unexpected coda, he quips, “I’ll put it on YouTube.”

JUNE 2, DIAVOLO STUDIO

Sixty invitees watch the first 10 minutes of “Foreign Bodies.” The dancers are more comfortable with the cube -- important, given that split-second timing is crucial to their avoiding injuries. The performance, nearly glitch-free save for several clanging cube collisions, is a feverish success, made more so because the studio isn’t air-conditioned.

JUNE 7, JACKSON HOLE, WYO.

Diavolo, now in its eighth season of international touring, arrives in this tony town in the Tetons for a 10-day residency that will culminate in three performances under the auspices of Babs Case, artistic director of the educational and presenting organization Dancers’ Workshop.

JUNE 17, CENTER THEATER, JACKSON HOLE

After two sold-out concerts in this beautiful new 540-seat venue, the company caps its final performance with the beginning of “Foreign Bodies.” Several dancers sport bruises and bandaged body parts, but the words “No pain, no gain” take on new meaning for them as the pumped-up audience offers a standing ovation.

JULY 27, DIAVOLO STUDIO

The work is finished. For now. And just as the bone-throwing apes experienced an epiphany at the beginning of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the dancers, ferociously leaping and testing their own bodies amid the monolith-like, deconstructed cube sections, have also discovered a bold new world.

Lindsey Nelson, Diavolo’s executive director, is pleased. “W.H. Auden said, ‘Never play tennis without a net.’ That’s what Jacques is doing now,” he notes. “He’s hitting the marks with the music, and it’s fantastic to see.”

Heim, a perfectionist, isn’t so sure. “As a choreographer, it’s always a struggle, even to be mediocre. Sometimes” -- he pauses -- “I just want to pump gas.”

An unlikely event. Born in 1964, Heim pursued street theater in his native Paris before earning an undergraduate degree from Vermont’s Middlebury College and a master’s in choreography from CalArts. Still, his paternal grandfather was couturier Jacques Heim, and la pomme apparently didn’t fall far from the tree. The elder man -- who designed gowns for, among others, Edith Piaf, Mme. Charles de Gaulle and Mamie Eisenhower and is credited, with Louis Réard, with having invented the bikini -- once allegedly declared, “The life of a couturier is a magnificent and continuous torture.”

AUG. 22-23, DIAVOLO STUDIO

Actor and teacher Salome Jens, a Heim colleague since both taught at UCLA in the ‘90s, works with the dancers. “I assisted them in looking at what they needed to bring to the event,” she says afterward, “their excitement and questioning, their puzzling and joy, to the discoveries they were making moment by moment so that they could participate in a more organic way.” The goal: “To be in the ‘now’ of it.”

AUG. 24, DIAVOLO STUDIO

Counting down the days until Sept. 4, Heim acknowledges that there is no wiggle room -- literally -- for the dancers. If they move even an inch farther than the 20-by-60-foot area allotted for them on the Bowl stage, the result will be disaster.

Is he nervous?

“It’s nervous excitement,” he responds. “In a weird way, the limitation put on me -- having the music and model of the cube a year and a half before the actual rehearsal, which was the opposite of my process -- gave me great freedom. From the first day, I was completely prepared. We started moving forward and never looked back.

“This piece,” he adds, “is going to have a life on its own. It’s going to evolve. But for now, it’s a huge honor to be at the Hollywood Bowl with Esa-Pekka Salonen. He’s like the Bono of the classical world.

“I’m just crossing my fingers that he isn’t going to change the tempo.”

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‘Diavolo Dances Salonen’

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $1 to $122

Contact: (213) 480-3232 or www.hollywoodbowl.com


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