Diavolo Flies at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts

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The ten dancers are falling, tumbling, soaked in exertion; they are coiled springs exploding into the air, sliding and twisting, caught and released.  This is in-your-face dance. It seems to be improvised, unchoreographed, but the split-second timing and perfect spacing contradicts that impression. The movement is instantly recognizable as that of skateboarders on the street, but we are not deceived into thinking we could perform it ourselves. The music is pulsing through the crammed-to-capacity theatre at the Ferst Center, and we are on the edges of our seats. Need an adrenaline rush?  Diavolo delivers.

“If you’re wearing socks, they’ll be knocked off,” reads an advertisement for the company’s appearance at The Broad Stage in Los Angeles.  That’s a pretty good assessment. The Ferst had to put four extra rows of seats in the orchestra pit to accommodate the audience.

Diavolo—the name is a combination of Dia (day) and Volo (I fly)–made its second appearance at The Ferst Center for the Arts on Georgia Tech’s campus Friday evening, September 20.  The company, which has been touted as a cross between modern dance and Cirque de Soleil, was founded in 1992 by Jacques Heim and has been controversial ever since.  Critics claim the performances are more theatre and circus than dance, or that the dancers spend too much time moving the enormous structures, or that the movement is too dangerous. Dangerous?  Coming from a country that flaunts its love affair with football? Well, the company was recognized as a cultural treasure by the City of Los Angeles in 2007. They have toured the world.  For the last six years, Diavolo has been collaborating with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a series of three world premieres at the Hollywood Bowl. The last of the three just premiered two weeks ago, and had its first indoor premiere here at Georgia Tech.

A closer look at the pieces on the Ferst Center program supports some of the controversy and argues against the rest.

Photo Credit: Julie Shelton

Photo Credit: Julie Shelton

The dancers are young. Most of them have only two or three years with the company, perhaps because the works are so physically punishing.  The dancers are vital and enthusiastic. They are transparent: they love what they are doing.  This company works collaboratively, with everyone contributing to the pieces, and the pieces continue to develop. These dancers have not arrived at this company through the usual channels of big-name dance programs and major company apprenticeships. They have unusual credentials:  gymnastics, competitive diving, cheerleading, lesser-known college dance programs.  Their talents combine to provide an evening of dance that is unpretentious and robust. There are no anorexic women or pompous men in this powerhouse.

The work begins with the architectural structure, continues through the music, and is then filled in with the improvised movement that is finally set as the final product, company founder/director Jacques Heim told the small group that stayed for the post-performance Q&A.  Heim called the company’s work “alive, abstract sculptures with themes.” It is definitely dance, even if there are theatrical elements.  There were only two pieces on the program, but each is nearly an hour long, and the audience doesn’t go home hungry.

The first piece, “Transit Space,” was set on and around four skateboard ramps. An engineer is required to create the massive structures the company uses, and Heim and the dancers talked about the structures as the Eleventh Dancer.  The dancers brought their boards, but they were wheel-less—amazing, because the movement made it appear that the dancers were on moving boards. The choreography drew from everything imaginable:  street dance, ballet, modern dance, and gymnastics. The sets moved around the stage, but it was intentional movement, woven into the dance.  The dancers, clad in cargo pants and different colored tee- and sweatshirts, were on the ramps, moving the ramps, sliding down the ramps, climbing the ramps, or leaping and diving off the ramps. They took the ramps apart and supported the metal parts with their bodies as other dancers moved across and through them.  They stacked them. None of the movement was intricate alone, but when combined with everything else happening on the stage, the effect was intoxicatingly overwhelming. Heim is a master at crafting layers of visual intensity. Within the piece, the dancers built relationships and trust (diving backwards off the top of a ramp and believing the group will save your life will do that!), just as young people develop their friendships and family-outside-the-home in our inner cities.  These are completely believable characters, each an individual, each taking a dare, each with a dream. The integrated curtain call was even more fun than the piece, with dancers appearing over the top of the ramp and sliding down into individual bows.

The second piece, “Fluid Infinities,” showcased a fiberglass dome pierced by Swiss-cheese holes and a clear tube reminiscent of those elevator shafts on the outside of some hotels.  This piece was more lyrical and fluid, as well as more complex.  An exploration of the evolution of the human spirit and form, it was much more cerebral, as well. It required incredible upper body strength, as dancers

Photo Credit: Mara Zaslove

Photo Credit: Mara Zaslove

levered themselves through the holes in the dome or supported the tube with their arms as another dancer moved through it.  “Fluid Infinities” built more slowly to its climax.  At the end, this piece felt unresolved, like the end of a season on television, to be continued: perhaps the ideas put forth here will be revisited in a future work. After all, human development is hopefully not at an end.  I would love to see the Hollywood Bowl version with live music.

The dancers were still emitting sparks of energy, even after the performance ended.

If the company has a weakness, it is that the physical requirements of the choreography demand dancers who are still at the thresholds of their own artistic evolutions.  At times, there is perhaps a lack of the depth and refinement that more mature dancers could bring to the work—but then, aging bodies can’t take the battering that young people shrug off.

Creatively and technically, the work is compelling.  Diavolo brings an experience that should not be missed.

Feature photo: Julie Shelton

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