The Soraya’s Existencia Performance Commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake

Get in on the aerial act.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Diane Haithman
  • Photographed by
    Julie Shelton, George Simian and Melissa Taylor

Jacques Heim, founder and artistic director of Diavolo/Architecture in Motion wants you to know that the performing arts company’s new piece Existencia is inspired by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and will be performed at The Soraya—right at the epicenter of that quake—30 years after the fateful event.

But it’s not about an earthquake. That is, it’s not about buildings, bridges and freeways falling apart—it’s about people coming together.

Jacques, whose company performs often at the Northridge performing arts center, was asked by the theater’s creative leadership to create a piece commemorating the anniversary of the January 17, 1994, earthquake. He chose to create a dance performance that focuses on the way resilient communities rebuild after disasters, whether caused by war, climate change or natural catastrophe. “We read this book by Rebecca Solnits called A Paradise in Hell. She visited different communities and gathered that communities facing disaster actually have a sense of joy, because it is the first time strangers help strangers,” he says.

Jacques, a Frenchman who lives in Encino, talked animatedly about Existencia over soft-boiled eggs at one of his favorite haunts, Encino’s Le Pain Quotidien, which he visits for authentic croissants. He prefers describing his work as movement rather than dance, and says he is more inspired by the work of architects than other choreographers. Diavolo is noted for building astonishing structures into its sets, enabling dancers to be suspended mid-air, and Existencia is no exception. The performance will include collapsing towers, skateboard ramps and even some aerial choreography by Amelia Rudolph, founder of Bandaloop, a dance company known for vertical performances on buildings, cliffs and walls.

Diavolo will also smash theater’s traditional fourth wall by beginning each performance with an impromptu move: reaching out to audience members to take the mic and describe their own encounters with disaster, including the 1994 quake. Jacques says the company is increasing its commitment to community issues; during the last seven years, Diavolo has worked with veterans on what he calls restoration. “We restore the physical, mental and emotional strength.” That work has resulted in Diavolo’s Veterans Project, incorporating workshops and performances around the country.

Jacques graduated from CalArts and launched his first dance studio on Parthenia Street in Northridge in 1992, little knowing that the peaceful area would soon be the epicenter of a 6.7 quake. Although it took 30 years to revisit the quake in movement, the experience has in a sense shaped Diavolo since it happened.

“I was living in Hollywood in an apartment complex, and I didn’t know my neighbors at all. Suddenly we were sharing food and blankets and water and taking care of one another. I said to myself, this is fantastic, that is amazing,” he shares. “I realized that is what I want to re-create with my dance company.”

Is Diavolo’s work risky? You bet. “Diavolo is dangerous. People ask why is your work dangerous; is it just because you want to have a wow factor? The answer is, not at all,” Heim explains. “When you put a human in a state of danger, in a state of survival, they come closer together, stronger, like a tight community. That is the mission of Diavolo. When you push humans beyond their own physical, mental and emotional limits, they can discover who they are.”

Existencia, January 17 and 19, The Soraya, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge  

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