Let’s play a game:
Tell me the first image that pops into your head when you hear the word, ‘architecture’.
If you’re anything like me, you saw multi-floor office buildings, streamlined skyscrapers, the house of your childhood, sturdy things, safe things. You possibly imagined the buildings of old, The Coliseum or the Egyptian pyramids, things meant to last the test of time. ‘Architecture’ isn’t likely to conjure up an image of a tipping platform propelling flipping bodies into space. It doesn’t usually fall into the same mental thread as the word ‘daredevil’ or the ephemeral and brief career of a dancer. That is, unless you are thinking of a dancer with Diavolo.
Diavolo was founded by Jacques Heim, the choreographer behind Cirque du Soleil’s Kà.The Los Angeles-based dance company consists of gymnasts, modern dancers, athletes, stunt performers, martial artists and ballet and hip-hop dancers.The mix of dance, aerobics, and structural engineering produces the company’s distinct style of ‘architecture in motion’.
I had the pleasure of posing a few questions to company dancer and Education Director, Chisa Yamaguchi. Somewhere between describing the foundations of a love for dance and movement, the process of creation, and a ‘Spinal Tap’ reference, a beautifully structured understanding of what this company is all about began to take form.
Tell me about your background- where and when did you first discover a love of dance or athletics?
I was an athlete first. I took ballet when I was four and absolutely hated it. So I was a hockey player growing up and took gymnastics as a teenager. I didn’t discover dance until I went to college at UCLA. I was a Japanese language and Literature major and in my junior year I needed to fill an elective so I took Tai Chi. I completely fell in love with the kinesthetic world and the new sense of brain exploration. Until then, everything was very intellectual in an academic sense, and I became fascinated with the idea of body intelligence. I auditioned for a dance major in my junior year.
How did you come to be a member of Diavolo?
I’ve been with the company for seven years, going on eight now. I spent my first two with Diavolo’s sister component, an education company that makes performances easily mobile and accessible. We perform in a variety of spaces, things like school cafeterias. After being with the secondary company for two years I went on to join the touring company and now I’m the Education Director for the Diavolo Institute.
Why is the educational side of performing of special interest to you?
Probably because of my background; I was so engulfed in the academic world that transitioning to dance seemed like a far-off departure. I remember my family was so confused at first; they are on board now. I think education is the direct bridge that makes those two worlds relatable to everyone. I was coming from such a cerebral and analytic place but pretty soon you realize that dance is math, dance is physics, and at the same time emotional. Both academics and dance are vital to culture.
Diavolo’s mission of architecture in motion sounds very intellectually driven. Can you describe that philosophy?
It’s not just the structures on stage, it’s the architecture of the human body, the building of anticipation or emotion. We like to do the aesthetically unexpected, it shows the incredible capabilities of the human form. The fun is tipping the scale between functionality and abstraction.
While we’re talking about structure, can you tell me about the choreographic process? Set pieces are a huge component of the show, can you describe the point of the process when sets are introduced?
The structures are always first. Jacques comes in with an idea, sometimes it’s a movement quality or a formation. We might spend time playing with different ways of looking at or constructing shapes. He also has a huge book- I think he even has a colored pencil set to go with it- and he’ll draw a sketch. Then he brings that to Adam Davis, the scenic designer. He comes from an engineering background and he adjusts the sketch. Then it goes to TIna and Mike, our engineering superstar architects who are just amazing and basically say if we can make something or not. They then make a tiny model, a small block version, for rehearsal space at home in L.A.
(As you can guess, I made an ‘oh! Like Stonehenge in Spinal Tap reference here. I can’t help it, that’s where my brain goes)
So what about the choreography? Is that a collaborative process?
It all starts with homework. Jacques will ask us a rather vague, sometimes heavy kind of question, things like, ‘where do you come from’ or ‘what is your greatest fear’.We aren’t very narrative like a Sleeping Beauty, more thematic. We then put those stories on paper, and the words become movement and then phrases and then keep expanding to form the pieces.Jacques is the one with the vision, he sees the movement and knows cut and put pieces together. The hardest is always the beginning, he ground floor. Once that’s in place, it’s easier to build upon that.
The company covers a wide spectrum of dance and movement, what is the training and schedule for the company?
It’s very eclectic, we work on a rotating cycle where everyone teaches in their preferred style. Sometimes it’s ballet, yoga, acro gymnastics, hip hop, contortionists stretches, and other times it’s a lot of conditioning; running or cross-fit. When we go on the road, we all focus more on cardio. It all depends on who’s teaching and what we need for touring or each performance.
Everyone seems to come from various movement backgrounds but what about the company dynamic? What kind of personalities do the Diavolo dancers have? Are you all adrenaline junkies?
I think, yeah, we all probably have a little of that hunger, and strive to try. Flying and catching, these things are probably a little crazy. We all want to push the envelope and ourselves and it takes a certain amount of trust in yourself to go to that edge. As a group we have to trust each other and individually, you must have the ability to let go of any fears.
What kind of thoughts are running through your head before a performance? Does facing some of the trickier moments still make you nervous?
I visualize pretty much every moment before we go on. being able to mentally see it is so crucial to being able to physically execute it. We all want that perfect show and that’s what we work for but accept that perfection doesn’t exist and hope to perform at our highest level. And that needs to be honest. The whole group has to pull together and sometimes be ready for chaos. It’s our job not to give it away if something happens and to be ready for that. Sometimes with live theater, that integrates into the show and the audience can enjoy those heightened moments.
Tell me about touring with this kind of a show- is it scary to work on different stages? What kind of crew is involved with so much equipment?
We always know the stage dimensions before we get to each new space and very rarely have to eliminate portions of the piece due to spacial restraint. Most of the time you just adapt, they are the size that they are.We dont have a crew usually for load out and sometimes we’ll help the crew in new cities load in. It’s part of the stage check for the dancers to look over the set pieces before we attempt to fly or fall off of them.
What is the dance-scene like in L.A. where the company and institute are based?
It’s Hollywood, it’s Sunset Boulevard. We are a stage company that exists in a commercial, often bi-coastal world. L.A. is saturate in entertainment so it can be tough to generate a buzz within the local community about dance, which is a tough sell in most locations. We want to be a gemstone in L.A.. There are so many wonderful things about the city, we hope it will be considered great because of the artists across all mediums and because our company calls it home.
What is a memorable moment you’ve had as a performer with Diavolo?
Every bow is incredible. The audience is there and wants to be wowed, to be changed. When people are there that respect the work, it feels like a thrill to have gotten through it. It takes you back to the level of sacrifice, which is really to make something sacred.
Is this the feeling that keeps you coming back?
What we do is destructive on the body. It can pull people to be either callous or insecure. WHen you can work through the challenges, it gives you a legacy. At the end of the show, I know my name will be on it. I know that I gave so much and I would do it again. There aren’t many people who get to do this and I’m happy to be in the club.
Photo by Julie Shelton
It is always so fascinating to learn how an artist molds and shapes a career; how the foundation of training and experience is laid and grows into something to put on display. We are all, in our fragile human structure, a veritable ‘this old-house’
of information, experience, possibilities. A monumental thanks to Chisa for sharing some of hers.
Showtimes: Friday 8 pm/ Saturday 2pm, 8 pm (I’m going to this last one, see you there!)