Dance review: DIAVOLO goes to work

The LA-based movement theater starts its flashy new show in the office, but it doesn't stay there long

DIAVOLO has been busy since it last visited Portland. (For one, they capitalized their name and attached their slogan, “Architecture in Motion,” to it.) “Losing One’s Self Temporarily,” or “L.O.S.T.,” is an all-new show, and Friday night was the world premiere of its second act, “Passengers,” another coup for dance presenters White Bird.

Live-wire artistic director Jacques Heim calls the show “An abstract study of our transient reality as we traverse through our daily lives and our daily work,” and the founders of White Bird call Heim “our favorite crazy Frenchman,” a title Heim seemed to relish as he took the stage for one of his trademark introductory speeches (and a celebratory white feather boa).

DIAVOLO opened White Bird's new season with "L.O.S.T." Friday night/Daniel MacSween, courtesy of White Bird

DIAVOLO opened White Bird’s new season with “L.O.S.T.” Friday night/Daniel MacSween, courtesy of White Bird

He has the ability to become a sort of highbrow hype-man for his own show, crackling with both joy and curiosity about what his troupe is about to do. It’s rare to see directors speak so freely about their own work before the show, and rarer still for them to do it with such unbridled humor and glee. He seemed as enamored with the conceptual framework of the show as he was with the exciting new contraptions the company has built. Watching him let his enthusiasm roam freely from intellectual to athletic challenges was the best introduction the show could have had, as it gave the audience a license to enjoy the same freedom.

Based in Los Angeles, DIAVOLO has produced innovative, acrobatic, often dangerous performances under the concept of “architecture in motion” since 1992. Heim works with a range of sculptors, architects and designers (including Portland’s local puppeteer Michael Curry) to develop kinetic, sculptural sets and props, often focused on particular themes.

His versatile dancers, with backgrounds ranging from professional cheerleading to ballet to stage combat, develop the choreography as a troupe around the challenges proposed by these sets. It’s a rich, interdisciplinary creative environment which has been producing remarkable work for more than two decades. “Trajectorie” is perhaps the best introduction to their idea of “architecture in motion” if you haven’t seen a Diavolo performance before. When you consider the physical risks involved, the following line from Heim’s intro for “L.O.S.T.” seems quite literal: “The constant teetering balance between vulnerability and control is the most natural process of the human experience and is the inspirational center for the collection.”

Part 1: “Cubicle”

“Cubicle” is set in “an abstract corporate America,” but one that seems to hail from a pre-computerized generation of soul-sucking offices. The business-handsome aesthetic and the ledger-stamping and file-filing motions, while repetitive, seem almost exciting compared to the modern computerized office where the broadest gestures you make all day might be getting a coffee cup down from the shelf or drawing something on a whiteboard. The movement language here seems to be borrowed from a time of bureaucracy that relied on physical objects, which is understandable as I doubt anything as exciting could be choreographed around mouse clicks and typing.

The set was cleverly simple. The curtain rose on a wall of grey cubes, about a meter on a side, open on two faces, with slots for handles. Soloist Jessie Ryan perched in the middle, dangling her cigarette and high-heeled foot from her cubby, seething with boredom. The playfulness of Diavolo immediately started to pierce the mundanity of the set, as hidden hands pulled apart the wall of boxes from behind. Ironically, the uniformity of the cellular architecture made it very versatile and surprising in the way it could transform the stage. The boxes became rows of desks, walls of many kinds, a stage, even a field of containers that swallowed the dancers whole.

The “plot” itself isn’t anything new—a struggle for expression in a gray, standardized environment, jockeying for position (literally) in a competitive workplace that only has room for the hungriest. The dancers triumph over the walls that confine them, eventually tearing off their uniforms to reveal some colorful undergarments. Taken too seriously, this story arc could weigh down the impressive acrobatics and the well-considered choreography, but the personality of Diavolo makes it work. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Heim has worked with Cirque de Soleil considering this structure: a theatrical, somewhat tongue-in-cheek story arc is embellished and explored by acrobatic choreography and inventive sets.

DIAVOLO opened White Bird's new season with "L.O.S.T." Friday night/Luke Behaunek, courtesy of White Bird

DIAVOLO opened White Bird’s new season with “L.O.S.T.” Friday night/Luke Behaunek, courtesy of White Bird

Part 2: “Passengers”

In his intro, Heim imagined his pieces as a salad and explained all the ingredients that he chopped up and threw together to make it, mentioning “everyday movement” as a small but important component.

Keeping this in mind, it makes sense that the second act would move from business spaces to the space of travel. Like the first act, the look and mechanics of travel in “Passengers” is from an older, more broadly-gestured era of big machines: bolted-together steam engines, suitcases without wheels, etc.

Diavolo’s designers and builders are clearly trying to outdo themselves. The new contraption for “Passengers” is a cross between a locomotive engine, a ship’s cabin, and some liminal space you could find in a train station or an airport. Of course this has to be assembled by the dancers from multiple pieces throughout the act, and it gives them a lot to work with.

One of Diavolo’s strengths is the way the company uses its sets in dialogue with the space of the stage. They build contraptions that have their own mechanics and rules, but find ways to bend and upend those rules. The “train” is complex enough to just be danced with and around, but they also use it as a complex structure to change and shape the space of the stage. They let it be a train, a room, a devouring machine, a staircase, and more. One of the most entertaining sequences was when the staircase on one side of the train suddenly turned into a slide as the dancers struggled to sit on it with their luggage.

Both pieces are distinctly less abstract and more story-based than DIAVOLO’s last Portland show, which introduces new challenges. However, the good humor and deep-running, joyous sense of play gives the dancers room to breathe against the backdrop of some ambitious, acrobatic choreography, as well as giving them the opportunity to explore some quieter, more subtle moments. Before the stairs gave out from beneath the dancers, there was a very comic sequence with a sleepy Jessie Ryan being passed back and forth like an awkward piece of luggage, and a truly delightful moment when one dancer found a seat on thin air.

Given Heim’s focus on striking a delicate balance, and the importance of play in the shows, I would recommend turning the music down a great deal, both in volume and melodrama. There’s so much to see, the audience doesn’t need to be so overtly encouraged to be amazed.

I also think some more space could be given to the story arc in “Passengers,” as all the movement and set-changes makes it quite easy to miss the motivations or explanations of the shifts in character and costume. DIAVOLO continues to consider new and entertaining challenges, and if they can balance the relationship of the story and soundtrack with the excellent choreography and motion-architecture as “L.O.S.T.” matures, it promises to be another jewel in their crown.

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