Diavolo Dance Theater members will appear to defy the laws of physics in pieces such “Trajectoire” on Saturday at Centennial Hall.
There is something fascinating about dancers who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to defy the immutable laws of physics. Like, for example, the 10 members of Diavolo Dance Theater performing at Centennial Hall on Saturday.
“What we do is very visceral, very organic and very visual. An audience who’s not used to going to see dance or theater can identify with it,” Diavolo’s founding artistic director Jacques Heim said in a 2007 interview with the Houston Chronicle.
“To say Diavolo is exciting is redundant,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, adding that the company is “brilliant at making precisely coordinated feats look improvisational.”
Heim likes to say his pieces are architecture in motion. Since 1992, Diavolo has been confounding audiences with performances that combine ballet, modern dance, gymnastics and acrobatics.
Large moving structures are integral parts of every work. One of the most famous is his rocking galleon, a platform mounted on a circus-sized half-pipe with railings at each end. One reviewer described it as a “heaving ship-scape.”
“In the beginning we could only rehearse on it for 20 minutes at a time — the dancers kept getting seasick,” Heim said, on his lunch break in Los Angeles where the company is based.
This giant stage prop designed by Daniel Wheeler is the swooping heart of “Trajectoire” on Diavolo’s Centennial Hall program. Set to an original composition by Nathan Wang, this plunging, keeling battle between gravity and agility has been in the repertoire since 2001.
On the surface, “Trajectoire” looks like nimble humans risking their lives either being thrown from or crushed by the weight of this massive rocker. Heim says “Trajectoire” is actually about the absurdity of everyday life and our daily need to keep constantly adjusting to an unstable environment.
Complementing this feature-length work is the freshly minted and also feature-length “Transit Space,” taking its inspiration from LA’s own skateboard culture — with which Heim feels a deep connection.
“I grew up in Paris, from a divorced family, and got involved with a street theater group that became my real family,” Heim said. “A lot of the skateboard kids here come from bad families and find their true family among other skateboarders.”
Several years ago Heim saw the documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” about the lower Los Angeles “artist-athletes” who transformed skateboarding into a sport.
As his own creative wheels turned, Heim worked with the people who did the documentary, watched many other local skateboarders in their natural free-form environment around the city, had his dancers watch the skateboarders, had spoken word artist Steve Connell get involved providing an appropriate text, built several portable skating ramps designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer, and invited some of the same skateboard movie stars to try out their own moves on the ramps while Diavolo’s dancers watched and took notes.
Meanwhile, composer and sound designer Paul James Prendergast created a score Heim calls “more rock ’n’ roll, U2-like, very different for Diavolo” enhanced by motion sensor technology and finally, “Transit Space” was complete.
Please note, the dancers are not skateboarding. The dancers have created this choreography that Heim shaped into a finished work representing the spirit of skateboard freedom, the need for self-expression and release from reality’s confinement — and the desire to belong someplace, to be someone special.