Diavolo Dancers Navigate Treacherous Terrain

Trajectoire (c) George Simian

United StatesUnited States Various Composers, Dancers of Diavolo | Architecture in Motion®:  The Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 12.10.2018. (JRo)

Dancers – Christopher Borrero, Christopher Carvalho, Kate Dougherty, Simon Greenberg, Steven Jasso, Aubrey Lawrence, Derion Loman, Majella Loughran, Danielle Maloney, Chantelle Mrowka, Madison Olandt, Matthew Wagner, Kimara Wood


Choreography – Jacques Heim
Associate Choreography – The Company
Music – ODESZA, Zack Hemsey, Moby, The Crystal Method, Sarah Jaffe, Florence + The Machine, Jon Hopkins
Structure Design – Jeremy Railton, Adam Davis, Mike McCluskey, Tina Trefethen
Lighting – Evan Ritter and John Bass
Text – Saffron Douglas
Sound – Simon Greenberg
Costumes – Brandon Grimm


Choreography – Jacques Heim
Associate Choreography – The Company
Music – Nathan Wang
Structure Design – Daniel Wheeler
Lighting – Daniel Lonazzi and John Bass
Costumes – Meegan Godfrey

Jacques Heim and his company have created a hybrid art form that lives at the intersection of dance, gymnastics, circus performance and architecture. With split-second timing his committed troupe climb precipitous heights, leap off moving structures and tumble through space. Dance, more often than not, plays second fiddle to artistic gymnastics as the performers navigate the treacherous terrain of Heim’s imagination.

A glance at the program notes speaks to the company’s background. Beyond their dance studies, the performers have roots in a range of activities including marital arts, team and individual sports, gymnastics and acrobatics. In the latter category there’s an aerialist, a contortionist and a trampoliner, and it’s no wonder. With absolute precision, these performers take risks only seen in the circus – and all without the aid of safety nets.

Heim has choreographed for Cirque du Soleil and arena shows. At its best, his work is magnetic and breath-taking. At its worst, it devolves into a catalogue of chaotic stunts. Both were on view at the Ahmanson Theatre on Friday evening.

The best was exemplified by Trajectoire (1999). An elegant metal-framed, boat-like structure with a wood platform, designed by artist Daniel Wheeler, formed the centerpiece for this tightly conceived movement piece. Heroic in scale, the ‘boat’ pitched and rolled like a ship in turbulent waters. Through the violent rocking, dancers engaged with the architecture, sometimes balancing against impossible odds, sometimes flinging themselves from edge to edge or scaling the apex of the pitch. Dancers on the floor raised their arms to be hoisted aboard the roiling vessel, only to disappear from view and reappear elsewhere on stage. In the most hair-raising sequence, women catapulted off the ship like Olympic divers and were caught midair by their male partners.

Heim describes the piece as illustrating ‘the transcendence of the human soul against all odds’. I don’t know about the soul, but the body was in full command, transcending motion and material to create a very unique performance art. Quiet but effective white costumes that flattered the dancers put the focus on bodies hurtling through space. Original music by Nathan Wang, in the spirit of romantic movie soundtracks, paralleled the fraught action on stage.

The first offering, Voyage, in its West Coast premiere, was a disappointment. Overly literal and lacking coherence, the piece, as described by Heim, is about ‘a young woman (who) dreams of traveling distances only astronauts can, escaping from the ordinary world into a surreal landscape of infinite possibilities’. And in case the Star Trek-style costumes, Twilight Zone-style door through which to enter the beyond and a Plexiglas tube that launched the protagonist into space wasn’t enough to clue you in, there was also a voice-over narration explaining her dreams and thoughts.

The formidable Madison Olandt, who trained in gymnastics and dance, went through the paces of Heim’s grueling choreography. What I missed was a sense of lyricism in her performance which focused more on athletics than dance. The other principal of the piece, Derion Loman, had a grace and elegance that rose above the mechanics of the choreography and marked his dancing throughout the evening.

Neither dancer was aided by the chaotic amalgam of electronic, hip-hop and indie rock music which created a musical climax every other minute and threatened to hijack the piece. With the addition of fog and colored lights, it felt more like a commercial music video.

There were engaging moments that related more to Heim’s successful Trajectoire in scope. A giant latticed wheel of metal was created out of triangulated parts on which performers rolled across stage or catapulted through its open sections. In another sequence, a rectangular structure composed of squares within squares had bodies hidden behind it. With only their arms poking through, they reached for and caressed the principal, creating an erotic longing, so unlike the rest of the piece.

These moments reinforced the fact that in balancing so many elements, Heim’s choreography was better served by focusing, as in Trajectoire, on one versatile structure rather than on moving dancers from one apparatus to another. In the end, however, his brave and committed performers gave the audience something primal that once upon a time the circus fulfilled – the need to be awed at the risks and rewards of live performers stretching the limits of the human body.

Jane Rosenberg

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