Diavolo Returns to Houston with City’s Premiere of S.O.S.

Photo by Sharen Bradford

Diavolo is a dance company not for the faint of heart. When you watch Trajectoire, one of Artistic Director Jacques Heim’s signature works, you’re held captive by the gravity-defying assignment at hand. Dancers maneuver a 3,000-pound boat using only momentum to catapult themselves into the air with stunning accuracy, not to mention fluidity and grace. The seesaw like contraption is a behemoth in and of itself, all steel, wood, and aluminum; a mistake on this apparatus would be unforgiving to say the least.

But this high-risk, high-pressure scenario is exactly where the magic of Diavolo lies, according to Heim in preparation for his company’s October 14 and 15 appearance at Jones Hall. “When you put a group of humans in a state of danger, they come together and create a tight-knit community,” he says. Heim recounts his experience after the 1994 Northridge earthquake as an example of this phenomenon. “Before the earthquake, I didn’t know my neighbors at all, but after the earthquake everyone came together to share food, flashlights, and blankets.” He remembers asking himself, do people really have to wait for a state of danger to actually come together? Not wanting to wait around for another catastrophic earthquake, he started a dance company instead. 

Diavolo’s upcoming Houston appearance will not only include the beloved Trajectoire, but also the Houston premiere of S.O.S. Signs of Strength, a culmination of Heim’s work with the veterans’ community. Heim, an enthusiastic and animated Frenchman with a perpetual sense of wonder in his eyes, speaks about his ten-year commitment to this population with tenderness and genuine affection. The workshops he has designed for this community vary in length, ranging from a single session to a few months depending on the scope of the project. “What we do is restoration,” says Heim. “We restore the mental, emotional, and physical strengths,” noting that participants often arrive depleted and wounded on a number of levels from their years of service. 

What is so special about S.O.S. Signs of Strength is that the cast includes military veterans and civilians performers alongside Diavolo company dancers, most of which come equipped with acrobatic, gymnastic, and circus skills. Heim uses the human body’s innate movement patterns to create compelling choreography and create a cohesive cast aesthetic.

For starters, when rehearsals begin, Heim doesn’t use the word ‘dance’ to describe the group’s intention or motivation. “We do not say that we dance at all,” he says. “We take that word and we throw it away. At the end of the day, when we’re born, the first thing that we do is crawl. Then we take a step, then we walk, then we trip, then we skip, and then we run. Humans by nature are beautiful movers.”

To propel the choreographic movement forward, Heim assumes the role of a drill sergeant or a football coach in rehearsal. Often participants begin the process filled with self-doubt, unsure if they can complete the physical tasks they once were adept at. Then a shift happens. “Suddenly, they realize, holy shit, I’m back as a human,” says Heim. “I have a sense of purpose.” 

Photo courtesy of DIAVOLO

The workshops ultimately have a two-fold purpose. The veterans leave with a tool box to better handle the realities of civilian life post-service, while the culminating public performance illuminates the rich narratives of the men and women behind the uniform. This, it seems, is where Heim finds his own purpose. “It’s really important to present the work in front of an audience, people who are strangers, to really see that the men and women of the armed forces are just like you and I,” he says. “Most civilians have no idea what veterans are all about. These are not just stories about the military, but stories about humanity.” 

Humanity is another word that’s been on Heim’s mind, especially in the post-pandemic world we are emerging into. He has noticed a shift in audiences, a desire for art that is more than just entertainment. There’s no question that there is a “wow” factor to the work that Diavolo does, but that doesn’t explain why Heim has focused his energies behind S.O.S. For him, the work represents dance that speaks to audiences. “Sometimes Modern dance can be so esoteric and abstract, to the point where people say ‘I don’t get it.’ This piece is so visceral,” he says. “It goes straight into your guts, straight into your brain. You’re going to feel it.” 

There is also the sobering reminder that the world we live in is in flux, with many of the world’s powers on the brink of conflicts both near and far. “As long as there are humans on this earth,” says Heim, “there will be wars.” With that understanding, Heim is hoping his work acts as a call for better veterans’ care. 

And a call for dance works that speak to a more universal human experience.   

Diavolo performs at Jones Hall on Friday, October 14 and Saturday, October 15 at 7:30. Diavolo is presented by Performing Arts Houston, and tickets can be purchased at performingartshouston.org. 

About the Author

Adam Castañeda is a dancer and arts administrator in Houston, Texas. He is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Pilot Dance Project, a non-profit arts organization with the mission to empower and transform communities through innovative dance, theater, and visual art. With his company he has performed in evening-length works by Ashley Horn, jhon r. stronks, Jennifer Mabus, Jaime Walne-Fruge, and Heather VonReichbauer. When not with the Pilot Dance Project, he enjoys performing with Suchu Dance/Jennifer Wood.

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