When Jacques Heim arrived in America in 1983 at the age of 19, he had aspirations to become an actor. His rebellious and often-wacky nature had gotten him kicked out of six schools in Paris before his family told him to try the "land of opportunity."
So Heim enrolled as a theater major at a small liberal arts college on the East coast. But when he noticed his American classmates making funny faces as he recited Tennessee Williams, he had a serious talk with his teacher. "He said, 'Look. Sorry, Jacques, you cannot become an actor. Your English is awful.' "
Heim then joined a dance class, where he would not have to speak. "That's how everything started," he said. "Suddenly I found my love for the universal language of movement."
"To become a great leader, you need to know your weaknesses and strengths," he said. "You need to know what you're about."
What he's about, Heim's dancers say, is hard work, brutal honesty and a flair for the dramatic.
"He often puts on a show. He lives to get a rise out of you," dancer Cal T. Chester said. "And by really nit-picking at what we don't do so well, he knows he's going to get something great out of us."
Chisa Yamaguchi, who has danced with Diavolo for nearly eight years, said Heim's raw emotion and unpredictability can pose challenges. "On an artistic level, it's an upstanding trait. But for the younger dancers, it's a relationship that can potentially be tumultuous."
Heim says the dancers who are left standing and eventually grow are the ones who "buy in" to the process. "When they first come to Diavolo they have no idea what they're stepping into, but eventually things get a little clearer," he said. "The work we do here reflects a lot about who you are, and if they trust me, they will become rock stars."
Heim's 10 handpicked "rock stars" are set to debut their newest dance, "Cubicle," this weekend at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The performances, which are the culmination of two months of practice, are Friday, May 1, through Sunday, May 3. In many ways, the show is a window into what makes Heim tick.