The three individual sections of Diavolo's monumental piece "L'Espace du Temps" were intended to be joined as a single, full-evening work, but they dribbled into existence one by one, as the Los Angeles dance-theater troupe premiered each singly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007, 2010 and 2013.
The truth is that something this big and complex takes a city. The North American premiere of the three parts together was the season opener Saturday at the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge, and the night was a validation not just of artistic director Jacques Heim and his fearless troupe of 13 but also of all the equally brave arts groups and public players (including Ford Theatres) that had a hand in bringing "L'Espace du Temps" to fruition. To get sentimental about it, the show reminds us of why we love L.A.
The L.A. Phil, which commissioned the trilogy, was not in the pit for this event. Conductor Christopher Rountree and the smaller but lush-sounding New West Symphony were the players, and they brought an intensity and clarity to the works making up the score: Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Foreign Bodies" (re-orchestrated for the occasion by Rountree), John Adams' "Fearful Symmetries" and Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3.
The complete "L'Espace du Temps" is a validation of Heim's gymnastic choreographic style as metaphor for the human condition. The scampering, sliding and leaping on oversized equipment all had deep resonance. Think of the cubes, tubes and dome — the impetus for the choreography — as a toddler's blocks writ extra-large (designs and concepts by Mike McKluskey and Tina Trefethen) and the dancers as grown-up children.
Heim never works with an explicit story; still, this triptych succeeds in taking the viewer on a metaphysical life journey. Heim's philosophy is less akin to Mad Max-like brute perseverance than to William Faulkner's belief that human immortality lies in our soul and in our capacity for compassion.
Heim begins in "Foreign Bodies" with a single arm undulating from a giant cube, this reaching for the sky, a testing of the air. The five men and women who eventually emerge are new creatures, the wiggling arm a continuing symbol of these nameless characters who grow in strength and agility. As Salonen's music crashes through one pulsing crescendo after another, Heim matches each peak. The dancers reconfigure the cube and use its pieces as spectacular launching pads.
The dancers appear as more mature but humorously flawed men and women in "Fearful Symmetries." While the set piece here is also a cube, it's harder to play with and takes more work to twist. The dancers show the effort. They have near-escapes and regularly swipe an arm across a brow. Phew, dodged being crushed. Phew, life is hard — but also fun. Ana Brotons grabs a resisting Ezra Masse-Mahar and kisses him hard, repeating the smooch until he's hers.
"Fluid Symmetries" is Heim speculating on a science-fiction adventure. The dancers are sucked into a dome with holes and re-emerge cleansed, "naked" in nude-colored unitards (costume concepts by Brandon Grimm and Laura Brody). Like a spider man with sticky feet, Leandro Damasco Jr. cavorts on the top and sides of the dome. The gracious Amy Tuley flows like silk in a mesmerizing solo. The work ends as it began: Chisa Yamaguchi reaches for the heavens, but this time trying to go farther, crawling outward from a lengthy clear tube.
Heim has finally let music be an equal partner to movement and set design in these works, and that makes all the difference. John Bass and Evan Ritter's shifting lighting designs were magical.
How appropriate that the downtown troupe schlepped out to Northridge for this milestone. Heim had one of his first rehearsal studios out here. Look how far he's come.