A lone dancer steps forward. Framed in silver metal rectangles, others stand behind her. As she dances, others step forward, emerging to take her place. As the number of bodies increases and the gestures repeat and accelerate, DIAVOLO takes hold with resounding athleticism. The metal rectangles rotate to become portable steps for bounding. Dancers leap across the chasm or support and elevate another body as it flings out in space, legs wide and reaching. “Passengers: Part 2 of L.O.S.T. (Losing One’s Self Temporarily)” travels a notable journey. The Los Angeles-based company founded and directed by Jacques Heim claims to “explore the relationship between the human body and environment” and comes up to task with Structure Engineering by Brian Shipley and Isolated Ground. The structures appear to challenge the laws of physics, putting dancers and bodies in seeming peril.
“Passengers” is choreographed by Leandro Glory Damasco Jr. in collaboration with the company. The travel tale moves forward with the structures in constant reconfiguration. A steep ramp for dancers to scale in one moment, the structures transform and I’m reminded of moving walkways the next. As the acrobatic cast flips, rolls, jumps and falls, there are split-second manipulations that put the eye on multiple levels. A large structure like a locomotive engine thrusts into the space. The lights are bright and intentionally pierce the audience. Plenty of haze, a pounding score by composer Bruno Louchouarn, jam-packed moments of danger, and the journey seems endless. Another twist of the structures, and we see from the outside looking in, those making the journey as if from a train window. In a moment of pause, there is relief. A female dancer assumes a passive posture, and much like the circus, the sleeping clown becomes a body to handle yet impossible to rouse.
The evening was introduced by Jacques Heim with a lengthy commentary on how the evening would roll out and what to expect. Another speech followed after the first intermission and an a cappella Star Spangled Banner (National Anthem) for “The Veterans Project” put the audience on its feet. Performed by veterans and developed through a four-month-long workshop, “The Veterans Project” opened with recorded testimonials by the performers, all of whom served in the military and encountered multiple hardships in returning to civilian life. Simple rhythmic marching, and shifts in direction brought the group into tight formations, leading into rolls spilling out onto a small mobile platform central to the group action. Music by Nathan Wang gave cinematic and urgently dramatic emotional shading while lighting by Nick Davidson used huge shafts of light to cut strong diagonals through the space. Structure Designer Daniel Wheeler created a series of metal poles that performers used to elevate each other, standing on shoulders, sliding down or riding the wave of thrusting as if in battle.
“Trajectoire” placed dancers on a large half circle type structure that rocked as their weight shifted. Rocking took place for the duration of the piece. Small moments when dancers balanced the structure in a steady position were rare and magical. Achieving a balance, four dancers interacted while changing places. They were angelic in white costumes by Meegan Godfrey, riding the structure like a wave, but remarkably controlling it beneath them. Openings on the side of the structure allowed dancers to slip out and come back on. The cycling of bodies was breathtaking and the danger was there. It was like the Olympic snowboard half-pipe all over again, remarkable human feats of strength, endurance, balance, and control. Women would take a diving leap from a twenty-foot high structure into the arms of waiting men. Except the men waiting had just arrived a part of a breath ago, so I know the jump came before the arrival.
The piece communicates challenges and obstacles overcome. There is nothing subtle yet everything is in the timing, the interdependence of the cast members and how the interactions rebound and propel. The audience comes to care about these performers. Audible gasps reminded me of that caring when someone appeared to come too close to the rocking structure, or when a man held onto the structure with one arm while seemingly dangling a woman on the other.
DIAVOLO is a masterful examination of conquering and negotiating altered environments through acrobatic movement and sublime strength and physicality. The interactions are constantly changing, just like the ongoing consistent motion of a pendulum. Bodies are set in motion. Each individual may interpret these passing moments differently, and if the viewer is given the freedom, may find an experience close to home.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission and one 15-minute intermission.
DIAVOLO played on Friday, February 23 and Saturday, February 24, 2018, at 8 p.m. in The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.