Saturday, January 17, 2015

Diavolo shares some of its danced wonders of space and structure at the Tarkington

We spend our lives in and around enclosed, manmade structures without thinking very much about how buildings mold and direct our physical selves.

Diavolo, the dance company from Los Angeles whose tour stopped at the Tarkington this weekend, makes art out of that relationship. The program subtitle attached to the troupe’s name — “Architecture in Motion” — opens up the possibilities.  Buildings rock, it turns out — and not just in earthquakes, but in our internalized experience of them.

The final moments of Diavolo's "Fluid Infinities"
Human techniques of both movement and structure blend toward artistic harmony in Diavolo’s work. Large set pieces, as virtuosic and unconventional as the performers’ interaction with them, are an integral element of the choreography. As one of the dancers said in a Q&A session after Friday’s performance, “the set is our 11th dancer.”

Each work is developed from the concept of Jacques Heim, Diavolo’s founder-director, through dancers’ interaction with the set. “Go see what you can do with this,” is how the dancer summarized the charge to Diavolo at a work’s outset.

Friday evening’s audience saw two of the results: “Fluid Infinities” and “Trajectoire.”  The latter piece made for an extended, breathtaking display of Diavolo’s strenuous art. A large, rolling structure — a sturdy “ship” in cross-section with a smoothly curved keel and a flat deck having removable fences at each end — is the platform for a dizzying exhibition of control, balance, and trust.

Mastering the tilt: Diavolo dancers in "Trajectoire"
The ten dancers, in kaleidoscopic combinations at speeds keyed to the “Twentieth First Century Galleon” and their coordinated direction of its rocking motion, slid on and off the deck and shifted their weight in movements that combined sheer physics with graceful flair.

When the galleon was moved 90 degrees so that its side-to-side motion became back-and-forth, further expressive tension was introduced as dancers appeared and disappeared according to the vigor of the galleon’s tilt.  The work ended with a woman’s solo on the uptilted deck, indicating in its lyricism after so much expenditure of energy what the program note called “the transcendence of the human soul against all odds.”

The opening work, set to Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, also ends with a female solo. “Fluid Infinities” pits the troupe — arriving as if after a space voyage in a transparent cylinder — against a half-sphere, or dome, whose surface is dotted with holes of different sizes. There’s more emphasis on individual confrontation with this set than in “Trajectoire.”

Collective interaction seems to be won with difficulty, after the piece becomes familiar to each struggling dancer in turn. They seem swallowed up into the holes, they pop out of them, they clutch at the surface and grasp for secure handholds. Occasionally, the dome seems to grab them. Over time, the half-sphere shifts and becomes more hospitable to the human intruders. The set undergoes beautiful shifts of illumination and orientation toward the movement.

The vocabulary, like a multi-lingual text, grows more expansive and nuanced, as if representing an increase in understanding. Knowledge of the world through physical interaction becomes the triumphant message of the last scene, as the cylinder vehicle is hoisted through one of the holes and the female soloist inside looks curiously around.

The audience gets the sense that it has witnessed more than an ingenious use of customized architecture. Having involved dancers’ interplay with shadows and the dome floor’s mirrorlike surface, something greater about self-knowledge has been communicated. It’s the soul’s reward for mastering a challenging experience in a strange environment.

That’s the basis of all learning, or it should be. What a joy it is to have such a lesson imparted wordlessly through Diavolo’s imaginative combination of architectural device and strong, precise movement.

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