In its aesthetic austerity, Diavolo Dance Theater’s Fearful Symmetries is just the deconstruction of a cube, and Trajectoire is simply the revolution of a large semicircular prism. But when embodied onstage with heart-racing acrobatics, choreographer Jacques Heim’s latest works transcend their exterior geometries to create emotionally charged, adrenaline-infused performances. On tour away from their native Los Angeles, Diavolo will show both performances back-to-back as part Duke Performances spring series at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday in Reynolds Industries Theater. One of the few consistently producing LA-based dance companies, Diavolo brings a distinctive West Coast attitude and outlook to Durham.
“LA dance tends to be audience-minded, presentational and has glamorous feeling to it,” said Thomas F. DeFrantz, professor of Dance and African & African American Studies. “LA dance is concerned with connections to the audience. It’s immediate, physical, available, legible.”
No doubt, the circus-sized and elegantly engineered sets are the fulcrums of Diavolo’s distinctly minimalist spectacle. In Fearful Symmetries, bodies vault and tumble over and inside a rotating, scalable jigsaw cube to investigate the relationship between mathematical thought and abstract emotion. Their staple touring work Trajectoire literally hinges upon a 3000-pound, barge-like, teetering behemoth, the exploration of which provokes human conditions of instability, frustration and loss.
Both works are the culmination of years of improvisational trial and error, precise performance and on-the-road revision. Fearful Symmetries, Diavolo’s current headliner, premiered in 2010 as part of the LA Philharmonic’s three-part collaborative commission with Diavolo Dance Theater. Symmetries and its predecessor Foreign Bodies (2007) were originally performed in the open-air Hollywood Bowl, against orchestral compositions by Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Adams, respectively. The final installment of the trilogy, Fluid Infinities, will be set to Phillip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 and is expected to go up this year. Diavolo’s success is a testament not only to their technical expertise, but to trends within the contemporary dance world. DeFrantz noted that Diavolo’s theatrical, acrobatic style is part of a rising mode of Parkour-inspired, ensemble-based dance that looks “almost like extreme sports.”
This type of work, DeFrantz said, is part of “an exciting strain of choreography that has long legs and long roots,” which draws on the experimental groundwork of American choreographers like Loie Fuller and Elizabeth Streb.
Executive Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald said that Diavolo’s work brings to mind the choreographic athleticism of Connecticut-based modern dance company Pilobolus, which has performed numerous times here in Durham at the American Dance Festival.
“This is the company at its most impressive, as part of a history of daredevil dance companies,” Greenwald said. “Diavolo has been better and better, with less ornamentation and more straightforward engagement with complex structure and apparati that they use to their full potential, their creative limit.”
The groundbreaking work done by Diavolo, in fact, partly stems from their conversion of high-flying, mobile circus props traditionally used in big-top tents to black-box style set pieces suitable for more intimate performances and theaters like Reynolds.
“Diavolo represents a rising interest in dance that forces dancers to deal with props, and reminds us of what risk feels like,” DeFrantz said. “It’s exciting for us at Duke, especially for students who are artistic, creative and have an interest in something exceptionally physical.”
With respect to its contribution to the local Duke and Durham dance scene, the company brings more than an internationally acclaimed performance. After having led departmental dance students through a backstage walkthrough earlier this week, Diavolo will offer an open master class this afternoon from 6:15 to 7:45 p.m. at the Hull Avenue Dance Studio between Duke’s Central and East campuses.
Chisa Yamaguchi, Diavolo’s educational director, said that the master class will focus on the core elements of Diavolo’s ensemble. Yamaguchi noted that her ensemble work always begins with fundamentals of trust, partner work and protective measures.
“We begin with trust falls, leading each other with our eyes closed, listening, picking up verbal cues, the basics,” said Yamaguchi. “We wouldn’t be able to do all the big flies and major movements if we didn’t know how to bear weight and absorb momentum. It all comes into perspective when you realize you are responsible for another human being.”
Yamaguchi said that once the foundation of trust has been established within the Diavolo ensemble, the group proceeds through experimentation with the prop for at least a six-week period.
“Much of our creative process is based on improvisation and ends up being achieved collaboratively,” said Yamaguchi. “So much of what we create we don’t actually use.”
Stunt-based work nevertheless comes at the price of considerable hazards for performers. Diavolo’s artistic director and founder Jacques Heim, who choreographed the $165 million Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil production of Ká, calls his dancers “gladiators,” said Yamaguchi. The title, of course, suits the company members perfectly. A war-like camaraderie is the emotional backbone of their high-risk, high-reward ensemble performances.
For not only must the Diavolo daredevils face personal peril every time they execute their elaborate, gymnastic choreography, but each must maintain a dynamic awareness to ensure the safety of their cast members.
The troupe has stylistic origins in circus acrobatics, with all its leaps and dives, but has adopted the versatility of contemporary dance groups. Unlike acrobats, Diavolo company members neither specialize their onstage roles—they triple as dancers, actors and gymnasts—nor do they take large mid-performance breaks.
“We put ourselves in the line of fire,” noted Yamaguchi. “We have to save each other every single night.”
Diavolo Dance Theater performs in Reynolds Industries Theater this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.