Jacques Heim | Credit: Leandro Damasco

With the global pandemic having impacted everybody and everything, so, too, has director/choreographer Jacques Heim been rethinking his company, Diavolo|Architecture in Motion. Marrying his love for dance with his fondness for architecture, Parisian-born Heim founded the troupe in 1992, and it has become one of L.A.’s pre-eminent dance companies and has also toured internationally for some two decades.

Known for its humongous, custom-built sets that include a 2 ½-ton aluminum wheel (“Humachina”), a 17-foot-long rocking boat (“Trajectoire”) and an 800-pound cube with more configurations than Mr. Rubik’s (“Foreign Bodies”), Diavolo dares to go where no other troupe has and is now making its first foray into film. Utilizing some of its existing structures and working with veterans and first responders, Heim and company will premiere a new film, This Is Me: Letters from the Front Lines, Friday, July 31, at 4 p.m. (PDT) on The Soraya Facebook page.

France Nguyen-Vincent in This Is Me | Credit: George Simian

Perhaps it was inevitable that Heim would segue from the massive to the more intimate, but Diavolo’s past endeavors have been indelibly etched into the minds of all who have seen any of their live concert spectacles. Indeed, Foreign Bodies featured the music of Esa-Pekka Salonen and was the first part of a trilogy commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Performed at the Hollywood Bowl with Salonen conducting the orchestra in 2007, that was followed by Fearful Symmetries and the music of John Adams in 2010, and with Fluid Infinities, performed in 2013 making use of Philp Glass’s music (all three works debuted at the Bowl).

Known collectively as L’espace du Temps, the trilogy was first seen in its entirety in Wolfsburg, Germany in 2014, with its North American premiere at The Soraya a year later, accompanied by Wild Up’s Christopher Rountree conducting the 60-piece New West Symphony.  

A scene from Fearful Symmetries | Credit: Thomas Ammerpohl

Since that time, 56-year old Heim, who also choreographed the long-running Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil epic, KA (now shuttered due to COVID-19) and whose troupe was a 2017 finalist on the network television show, America’s Got Talent, had already begun rethinking Diavolo’s mission: In 2016, the company began The Veterans Project, employing its signature movement vocabulary as a tool to help restore veterans’ physical, mental, and emotional strengths through workshops and public performances all around the country.

A pair of dances resulted — Ibuku and A Long Journey Home — seen on Veteran’s Day, 2017, when The Soraya hosted a day-long 25th-anniversary celebration of Diavolo. With This Is Me, the troupe’s fourth collaboration with The Soraya, and commissioned by Executive Director Thor Steingraber, Diavolo is again pushing boundaries.

A scene from Ibuku | Credit: Doug Gifford

Exploring how the current climate of isolation has encouraged us to look within ourselves as well as following the paths of military veterans and first responders as they share what it means to be true warriors, the film is The Soraya’s fourth online performance since the coronavirus eliminated live concerts.

Heim, a graduate of CalArts, acknowledges that although these are difficult times, he remains optimistic. I spoke with the Frenchman about the logistics of making a film during a pandemic, his relationship with veterans and first responders and his outlook on the future.

What was the genesis of This Is Me, with some of the veterans including Chris Loverro (Army), Shannon Corbeil (Air Force) and Tyler Grayson (Army)?

During those first three weeks of the shutdown, I was stunned [thinking] how do we deal with it and what does it mean for our dancers? Basically, everybody is suffering, but across the world, all performing artists, their world was completely destroyed. Every week our dancers were doing Zoom and I was giving them creative homework, but it was difficult and some couldn’t see what tomorrow was going to be.

I always loved the medium of film so when Thor called and said, “I want you to do a little project. You’ve been working with veterans — maybe you can do something with first responders. What do you think?” This sparked an energy to give us oxygen into being artists again. Nothing is random in life, including the pandemic and I realized maybe this is a sign that I should reinvent the way Diavolo creates, so why don’t we do a film about warriors? We fight wars with guns and tanks and missiles, with military men and women and now we fight this invisible war with medical aspects. The warriors are first responders so let’s do a film that celebrates them.

Aaron Mendez filming Dr. Sasan Najibi in This Is Me | Credit: George Simian

You had already been working with vets, but can you talk about the medical personnel and other performers?

Dr. Sasan Najibi is a vascular surgeon at Providence Saint Joseph Hospital in Burbank, Mariella Keating is a nurse. We also have an EMT, Lucas Haas, and four military vets, one who is now shifting to become a nurse. Jim Vincent [former director of Netherlands Dance Theater and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago] is our artistic consultant and dramaturg, and his wife, France Nguyen-Vincent, plays the through-line character in the film.

She’s also a writer, so she helped us create the questions, working with letters. I asked her to write as a civilian, as a woman, as a mother, as an educator, “Can you write a letter about how you feel now?” That was the departure that you’ll hear throughout the movie. Her letter starts with “Lately, it has been considerably harder to rise,” because we don’t know what is tomorrow, how our family will be safe, how life will be changed forever, how are we going to survive — physically, financially?

France was asking a similar question to the warriors: “How do you have the strength to rise every morning? How difficult it is to be on the front lines — not only from a military point of view for service, but in the front lines now?” There’s a parallel between the military and the first responders and we asked them to describe their work: “Do you feel purposeful? Do you feel safe? What is your outlook in the near future? How do you deal when you lose a patient? What bears heaviest on your mind and body?”

Derion Loman in This Is Me | Credit: George Simian

Then there’s the prevailing concept of warriors as heroes.

We also asked that across the line. “Do you feel like a hero?” They don’t feel like a hero but they do feel like a warrior on the front lines — putting on the mask, the suit, the oxygen to breathe. They want to save lives and do good. Listening to those men and women, those warriors — they elevated us. After feeling for months kind of depressed and coming to the studio, suddenly we became human again.

Speaking of your studio, which is in the Brewery, east of downtown Los Angeles — it may be home to your massive structures, but dancers generally work in close proximity to one another. How did you negotiate the guidelines of dealing with the pandemic while making the film?

We had to put my six main dancers [including Derion Loman, Daniel Jacob Glenn, and Kelsey Long] in total quarantine. I asked them to live together, eat together, like a family, like parents and kids. We had also our first responders giving us advice, and since the main part of the film is taking place in our studio, we had to do some major health procedures such as cleaning after every time one dancer is on a structure. We spent more time cleaning and looking at our health procedures than shooting the film. It was intense.

You were named for your paternal grandfather, couturier Jacques Heim, who designed gowns for, among others, Edith Piaf and Mme. Charles de Gaulle, as well as having co-created the bikini, so I must ask about the costumes. Are your warrior/performers wearing PPE?

During the film, all the dancers are wearing black masks and they represent civilians and the first responders. I kind of shifted the angle so they are wearing green military outfits. The warriors are wearing regular clothes, because I wanted to show that our warriors, the ones we call heroes are amazing people just like regular folks. We’re in the middle of this thing, trying to fight for our life — physically, emotionally, financially — that’s why I put them in military outfits, because they’re ready to go to war. They’re not feeling defeated.

We need to find a way, because as humans we are resilient. We are powerful. I didn’t want to do clichés — a doctor with the white blouse, a nurse with scrubs. I wanted them to wear regular clothes, which brings more human closeness to who they are and that they are doing amazing things.

Majella Loughran in This Is Me | Credit: George Simian

What structures did you use, who shot and edited the film, and how long did it take?

We used columns, a giant wheel, cubicles, a cage, and trilithons from Fearful Symmetries. We also used ramps and poles. Each group had their own environment to deal with. I didn’t ask the warriors to move a lot but to do something simple but specific to their letters. Then we shot the movement with vets and sometimes there was a dancer far away. The vets and first responders didn’t wear masks because I wanted people to see their faces, but they were seven feet from the dancers, all this under the regulation of the doctor and the nurse in the film so you’re doing it within the health code.

We had two weeks of rehearsal and eight days of shooting. Aaron Mendez is an Emmy award-winning cinematographer and he also edited the film with Jim and I looking at some of the footage to decide what goes where. I also have to mention our project manager and producer, Dusty Alvarado, and his husband who’s a chef and made meals for us during shooting days to make it special for everyone.

What about the choreography itself — how would you describe it?

The way the movement comes in, I wanted it to enhance, in an abstract way, the content of their letters. For example, Dr. Najibi is very meticulous and precise, so we have the structure from Ibuku and you see him in a blue shirt and regular pants. He introduces himself, speaking to the camera live, then you hear the voice-over of his story — how he has to escape from his country, the journey that he had to fight to come to America, land of opportunity.

Now, he’s one of the top vascular surgeons in the country and as part of his hospital work, he had to create over 100 beds for COVID-19 patients. You see him putting these poles one after the other into the structure, meticulously, like his surgery, with dancers passing the poles to the doctor. You don’t see the dancers at that point and the film cuts to a woman moving inside this pole’s confinement and she’s trying to find her way out.

At the end of the day we wanted a sense of freedom because we’ve been confined and we can barely breathe with masks. One of the last scenes is a woman climbing to the top of the poles and she’s lying on the poles, her body hurting. She slowly takes off her mask as a sign of freedom and then there’s that scene of the doctor. It’s how the story of the warriors mix with movement [that] brings a nice juxtaposition.

Jacques Heim

As a first-time filmmaker, how did it feel?

There are 19 total in the cast, so you can imagine the challenge of scheduling, though the 19 people were not in the studio at the same time. It was little pockets of humans and to manage that, to clean everything, it was a mathematical challenge and a strategy challenge, but one that says, ‘I think we can do this.’ It’s interesting because we, all of us, know nothing about making a film, but for some reason it was very instinctive and natural. The work of Diavolo is very cinematographic — the way we direct, the way we create.

This is not like a Hollywood picture. We used one camera in a studio with simple lights by Jean-Yves Tessier, who created a lot with nothing. The vets had a beautiful time and we made them like superheroes. That’s my mission with Diavolo, creating a social-impact film that celebrates humans. It was a beautiful experience during this unprecedented and horrific time and that’s what art and artists can do to each other — make us feel special. Art is quintessential to our life. People don’t realize this, but artists are amazing human beings and one thing is for sure, this film fed our souls and it makes me inspired again.