Dance review: Diavolo rocks the stage

In White Bird's season opener the dancers risked and were rewarded

An incredibly strong start to White Bird’s 17th season, Diavolo returned to Portland for the first time since 2003 on Thursday. Under artistic director Jaques Heim, Diavolo has produced boundary-pushing, often dangerous performances under the concept of “architecture in motion” since 1992.

Working with a range of sculptors, architects and designers (including Portland’s local puppeteer Michael Curry), Heim develops massive kinetic playgrounds for his gymnastic dancers by creating structures and apparatus for them to explore and manipulate. These become world-building devices, each transforming the stage with their new demands of movement. It’s impossible not to start imagining the possibilities and lives of these structures as soon as you see them, starting with “how on earth did they ship that thing up here?” In some ways, the performances can be seen as a challenge for the dancers to demonstrate wilder expression for these new worlds than the curious audience can imagine.

Diavolo opened White Bird's 17th season with daring acrobatics./Photo by Alexander Slanger

Diavolo opened White Bird’s 17th season with daring acrobatics./Photo by Alexander Slanger

The first piece, Fluid Infinities (2013), centers on a glossy quarter dome pierced by holes like a moonscape designed by Eero Saarinen, countered by a large transparent tube that would be right at home on the set of the original Star Trek series. After a long intermission, the dome is replaced by a 3000-pound rocking stage that looks like the cross section of a boat with a parquet deck. Diavolo has carried this imposing, playful platform around the world since 2002 to perform their seminal Trajectorie. The show is short, intense, and amazingly entertaining.

All the choreography is produced by the dancers themselves, with Heim facilitating and supervising. One can imagine them creating the work as they collectively educate themselves in the new laws of physics peculiar to each structure. In the Q&A after Friday’s show, Heim estimated the exchange rate of discovery to finished choreography at 10 hours per six seconds—and that’s before practice time.

All the dancers in Diavolo have the sort of startlingly convex musculature that casts sharp, geometric shadows visible from the audience as they flex and contort, the kind of burliness you expect from Olympic athletes. From the moment they engage their devices, the stage is filled with an intensity of focus, training, and mechanical precision I haven’t seen in Portland since Trisha Brown came through. It’s worth mentioning that the TB performance had one moment which could have maimed its dancers with anything less than absolute precision, while Diavolo throws that sort of thing at you faster than you can count. When Heim explained that the troupe’s name comes from the Italian for “Devil” and “Flight,” a murmur of understanding rippled through the audience.

Diavolo's stage that rocks./ Photo by Angela Weiss

Diavolo’s stage that rocks./ Photo by Angela Weiss

At the start of Fluid Infinities, the dome was covered by a glittering curtain and the dancers were preoccupied with the giant tube. Suddenly, an unseen hand began drawing the silky fabric into the largest hole, producing a creepy feeling of gravity. The dancers entered wearing uniforms reminiscent of flight suits as they climbed and slid down the tube which served as their conduit into the strange land of the dome. One by one, they were drawn into its holes by the same theatrical gravity. When they emerged, they were clad in gold lamé leotards, as if dipped in the fabric that had otherwise vanished from the stage.

I think it’s hard for shows that pit a troupe of dancers against elaborate sets to completely avoid the feeling of a room full of people shouting to be heard. (Linda Austen’s recent solo piece with props by David Eckhard, by counterexample felt like an intimate conversation between two strange cronies). I got at least halfway into Infinities before noticing that my thoughts hadn’t wandered at all, but everyone on stage had been moving simultaneously the whole time. I was impressed by the cooperation and understanding that seemed to unite the group’s movements.

Trajectorie made it clear that anything less could be fatal. The principles and features of the architecture for both pieces are rather straightforward. The dome turns, can be climbed, can be entered, can be exited. The “boat” in Trajectorie is flat on top and curved at the bottom—it is a stage that moves, and it can store the dancers power and return it to them. The fact that the device was, in essence, just a stage, exposes the challenge of working with anything as boldly innovative as this “architecture in motion.” If it’s still a stage, the work will live or die on the artistry of what they do within the nature of that stage, not just the novelty of the stage being different from the ones we’re used to.

So much of Trajectorie is immediately, obviously impressive. The dancers are able to match their movements so precisely that they can perform passages on the boat as it pitches up and down at least 100 degrees off axis as if it were a stable stage. Working together like a platoon of soldiers, they rock the contraption to pluck their companions off the stage on one side of a roll, and then drop off another on the return. The exchange between the flat and the rolling stage is fluid and continuous, and no one puts a foot out of place. They quickly establish a dizzying level of control, and then the first dancer goes flying off the edge of the boat into arms waiting below, like the biggest see-saw you ever saw. With almost no warning for the first couple jumps, the audience still gasped and whispered louder with each new leap.

Diavolo dancers are athletic, acrobatic and fearless. /Photo by Kenneth Muck

Diavolo dancers are athletic, acrobatic and fearless. /Photo by Kenneth Muck

What is perhaps more impressive is the subtlety with which they handle this beast and when they take risks with it. No one would have complained about a night of acrobatics that built up to a display of leaps and rolls paced like a fireworks show, but instead the handful of jumps we saw were each contingent on their moment in the show, each had their own personality, and each woke up the audience in their own way. Though nearly anything involving 3000 pounds of wood and steel rocking back and forth next to a frenzy of people will be dangerous, the dancers’ proficiency with it creates a false sense of ease. Rather than playing the danger up, the choreography placed the dancers in obvious peril only a couple times, letting them lie in the shadow of the boat for a few thrilling seconds before casually rolling out of its way, letting that ease fall away for just a few seconds. Lion tamers can’t spend the whole performance with their head in the lions’ mouths after all.

The spectacle and wonder of it all was sharpened by this restraint and its alternation with equally precise, quieter moments. My favorite may have been near the beginning, when the platform was rocking perpendicular to the edge of the stage. The dancers took advantage of the fact that they were hidden when the hull rose, and quietly appeared and disappeared in the space between beats, so each new reveal of the stage brought a new arrangement of performers as if they had been beamed down from somewhere. Maybe the moon from the first act.

In the Q&A at the end of the show, the troupe talked with a mix of camaraderie and wonder that reminded me of the dancers in Compagnie Marie Chouinard—like a group of explorers who had just returned from a land few had seen. However, they lacked the almost fearful hesitation to express their challenges and experiences that dancers who have to deal with Marie Chouinard seem to develop. They were on a bizarre and challenging mission, but they had an ease about them that came with the relief of not having to explain why they took such a mission. By treating it with respect and not forgetting to take joy in the challenge, they put on a show that should be genuinely cathartic for anyone who feels like they spend their lives on strange, perilous challenges.

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