Diavolo rehearsing Existencia | Credit: George Simian

With Existencia, a 65-minute opus that explores human resilience in the face of disaster, Diavolo | Architecture in Motion, founded in 1992 by Paris-born, Los Angeles-based choreographer Jacques Heim, promises a thrill ride of epic proportions. Commemorating the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the world premiere lands at The Soraya on Jan. 17 and 19, the former being the day 30 years ago when Angelenos were hurled into a new reality by a 6.7 seismic shock that was felt throughout the city.

It seems fitting, then, that The Soraya, the theatrical heartbeat of the rebuilt Cal State Northridge campus, should present Diavolo this month. After all, this is a risk-intensive, hyperphysical dance troupe known for its outsize structures, which over the years have included an 800-pound aluminum cube (Foreign Bodies) and a 2½-ton aluminum wheel (Humachina) — not to mention the fact that Diavolo’s studio literally felt the impact of the quake, having been located in Northridge at the time. Existencia marks the company’s sixth collaboration with Soraya Executive and Artistic Director Thor Steingraber.

Jacques Heim
Jacques Heim | Credit: George Simian

The ever-effusive Heim, 59, who earned a graduate degree from CalArts and whose dancers combine elements of contemporary dance with martial arts, acrobatics, and hip-hop, explained the new work’s genesis: “Northridge was the only American university that was destroyed [in this way], and at that time, President Blenda Wilson refused to close and rented trailers for students to continue their work.

“She was at the head of this resilience, the journey that Northridge took,” he added. “When Thor told me this, [I thought of] the kind of work [Diavolo has] done for the last seven years with military veterans, about resilience, courage, sacrifice, commitment. It’s about creating a community, a battalion that comes together in the face of disaster. The theme was definitely aligned to what we’ve been doing.”

Existencia is also Diavolo’s first work to have an original score, which will be performed live by a celebrated jazz couple, percussionist Antonio Sánchez and vocalist Thana Alexa. Then there are the three actors and 23 dancers, including Amelia Rudolph — founder of the Oakland-based vertical dance troupe Bandaloop, who performs an aerial solo (in addition to having helped choreograph a pair of airborne duets) — making Existencia the largest cast Heim has ever assembled.

As for structures, the Frenchman has not stinted in that department either. He’s a believer in sustainability, so there are four ramps that Diavolo deployed for Transit Space (2012), as well as a cage that makes a Rubik’s Cube seem like child’s play, that reappear here. But new to this performance are 12 freshly minted aluminum towers designed by Adam Davis and fabricated by Philip Ginolfi. Ranging in height from 7 to 14 feet, these so-called “city towers” resemble an urban skyline and are manipulated in various ways by the dancers, who catapult off them, jump across them, cocoon inside them, and maneuver them around the stage.

Diavolo rehearsing Existencia | Credit: George Simian

Heim, whose company has presented a variety of architectural creations in past performances, explained: “These city structures are the most cumbersome, heavy, dangerous structures. They’re between 200 and 400 pounds. They’re very sharp, and the dancers, since the beginning of rehearsal seven weeks ago, cut themselves left and right.

“There is blood regularly on them and on the stage,” added Heim. “Now they’re trained with it. They understand it. The structures are heavy, and you need people to lift them. That was part of the mandate to myself — make them as heavy as you can without being too heavy that you can’t do anything. They’re sharp, so there’s a danger to it, and there’s a realism to the piece when we have to deal with them.”

Heim admitted that the towers were initially “a bit daunting. From the drawings I had been doing, I communicated to Adam, and we created a model for me to play with. I still did not know if it was going to work and if I was going to be able to do a piece. But the model helped, [and] we created a script. But it’s not words on paper or models that tell you that this is going to work. The first week of rehearsal, when we were facing the structures, I’m thinking ‘Is this going to work?’”

Diavolo rehearsing Existencia | Credit: George Simian

With France Nguyen-Vincent as dramaturg (she’s also director of Diavolo’s Veterans Project) and her husband Jim Vincent as associate creative director (both were with the acclaimed Netherlands Dans Theater), Existencia is more than the sum of its parts. Adding further inspiration was Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 bestselling book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

That profound notion — when confronted with disaster, people not only rise to the occasion but do so with joy — informs Existencia. Noted Nguyen-Vincent: “It’s a big cast, a lot of collaborators, and the subject matter made us think aloud. It’s also emotionally and physically challenging. The process itself has been important to me, especially when we’re talking about disasters and what’s going on in the world right now.”

Noted Heim: “When audiences watch Existencia, like in the book from Rebecca Solnit, humans are the most important. We’re such slaves to technology that we forget humanity. Without humanity, we’re nothing, we’re done. It’s the only moment, during disaster, that community comes together.

“So I ask these questions: ‘Could we come together a little more often, before waiting for another disaster? Can we be kind to each other, put our differences and prejudices aside? Is it only in the face of disaster [that] we’re willing to become heroes?’ We’re born the same, and we’re going to die the same,” Heim continued. “Why not be like that a little more during our lifetime?”