{Dd} Response: Diavolo Dance Theater's Salad? A Toss-Up

 In Dd Response

We were about to see a program with two parts, Jacques Heim, Diavolo Dance Theater’s effervescent choreographer and artistic director told the audience. He went on to describe the Los Angeles-based company as a salad tossed with “ballet, modern dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, and a little hip-hop.” The first half would be a retrospective, he said, comprised of previous works including D2R (1995, restaged 2005), Knockturne (1998/2006), Bench (2009), and Humachina (1999/2009). After intermission, we were to see what audiences can expect from the future of Diavolo–the longer work called Transit Space would allow the company to dive deeper into both subject matter and the finesse of execution. For a group that routinely dives into each other’s arms from 20-foot-high set pieces without any visible fear, my first thought was, wow, that must be fairly deep.

Heim exited the stage at the Irvine Barclay Theater, and the curtain rose. D2R began with ambiguously military and choral sounds and rhythmic blasts of light like gunfire. Dancers dressed in dark, utilitarian garb ran, encircling a giant sculpture that looked like a pegboard for human-sized tools. Indeed, as the dancers ultimately mounted the thing it would become just that. Their movements painted them into many different shapes on a variety of imagined landscapes. They lay in diagonals across the pegs with their heads tipped towards the floor, the giant platform resembled a live loom, their bodies were part of a half-finished tapestry; when they crawled up it hand-over-hand, it transformed into a rock wall or the rubble of a warzone. The patterned and deliberate crossings of the ten dancers was nothing if not physically impressive.

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Photo by Mariane Medeiros

Bench, the third work of the evening’s first half, had a similar effect.  At the heart of it all was a silver industrial step stool or bench, which sat center stage as the lights came up. The dancers’ faces all seemed to be magnetically drawn to it, as if there was something on top of it that everyone wanted to see. Indeed, all of the intentions of all of the dancers were fixed upon the bench. A game or a fight, I couldn’t tell which, ensued. Everyone on stage wanted that bench, and they all were cunning and athletic enough to get it. The tumultuous choreography continued spiraling away from this or that dancer on to the next. The near-misses and unexpected coordinations of them successfully kept the eye engaged.

As any dancer came close to the bench, they’d be thwarted by another. These confrontations eventually escalated into the use of vocals as the dancers were caught off guard or annoyed–an “ugh” or an “oof” to start, which slowly climbed into full-blown screams and shouts. The piece, which was set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, was wonderfully reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, not so much because of the actual movements on stage, but because the movements and simplicity of intent so accurately mimicked the rise and fall and curvature of the music.

In all four of the works on the program’s first half, Heim’s choreography was filled with surprises. Like a magician, and not without the help of props, elaborate set pieces, and adept lighting, I was effectively and repeatedly thrown off the scent of what I thought might happen. The choreography had the knack of looking like it was the whim of each person on stage at the moment it occurred. This, added to dancers’ utter lack of fear, made the “retrospective” portion of the evening wholly enjoyable.

The final work of the evening, Transit Space, was meant to ensure the shelf-life of Diavolo salad. A riff on skateboard culture, it was complete with mismatching “street” clothing, skate decks without wheels, and a spoken-word score created by writer Steve Connell. An assortment of movement styles from breakdancing to modern and jazz complemented the skater design elements, and there were four elaborate skate ramps with curved inset pieces that folded out to double as bridges, designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer and Tina Trefethen and conceptualized and engineered by Trefethen, Mike McCluskey, and McCluskey LTD. I prepared to taste my greens.

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Photo via www.diavolo.org

The work opened with solos danced on top of the wheel-less skateboards, set to dialogue. The words spoke of a map, of getting lost, of wanting to get lost, introducing each character with a new voice. Later, they talked about connection–“I have 1500 Facebook friends, and they all wished me a happy birthday, but I haven’t seen a real person in days.” And romantically, “use my body as your keyboard.” The poetry flowed and the words themselves had a more appropriately disjointed sense, for the subject, than some music might have, although there was also ambient music laid underneath the text.

Clearly, a dance about skateboarding is going to use skateboarding to describe the human condition as it pertains to all. But, as the set pieces were unfolded, stacked, and arranged into a multi-dimensional labyrinth across the stage for the dancers to acrobatically navigate, a piece of the puzzle was missing. The words were ultimately vague, sort of muddily positioned over everything. The experiences shared lacked nuance, and I wondered if it pertained to skateboarders at all–and for me, using spoken word and then not getting specific was a missed opportunity.

Certainly the choreography reached exciting heights–for instance, dancers were accumulated into one repeated zigzag pattern across the stage, in which they’d then run up one ramp, slide down it, and repeat–but for the first time that evening, my attention waned, and I wondered: for Diavolo, is the long form ineffective? Heim had proved capable of keeping people on the edge of their seats in the shorter works, but the lulls a longer work often requires for the sake of dynamic didn’t draw me in here. Granted, the works on the retrospective side of the program had been reworked and stood the test of time; Transit Space was a premiere. It is possible my dissatisfaction was more about viewing Heim’s work less processed. Yet in the end, it seemed Heim had chosen the wrong bowl for his futuristic salad. Although the skateboarding ramps were undoubtedly suited to the pyrotechnics of his work, the form of skateboarding itself is perhaps at odds with concert dance–if I wanted to see feats in that arena, I’d rather drive to Venice Beach than go to the theater.

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