Calling the Los Angeles-based troupe Diavolo a dance company is like calling a monster truck a nice vehicle. But buy into its in-your-face aesthetic and you’ll have a wild and thrilling ride.
Billed as performers, not dancers, the 10 company members pushed the limits of movement and daring in two works at the Ferst Center for the Arts on Friday: “Transit Space” and “Fluid Infinities,” the final work in their “L’Espace du Temps” (“Space of Time”) trilogy. (The second piece in the trilogy, “Fearful Symmetries,” was performed at the Ferst in 2010.)
Jacques Heim, Diavolo’s French-born artistic director, has created movement for the opening ceremony of the 16th Asian Games in China, an arena show at London’s Wembley Stadium and Cirque du Soleil’s “Kà.” “Fluid Infinities” premiered earlier this month at the Hollywood Bowl, the largest natural amphitheater in the United States, seating close to 18,000. Let’s just say Heim thinks big.
His own company’s works are developed around huge architectural set pieces. The massive, central structure in “Fluid Infinities” must have looked very different at the Bowl than it did at the Ferst, where it filled the stage, dwarfing the performers. But it worked. Was this a strange planet? A spaceship, with its smooth, silvery surface and Swiss-cheese holes?
The performers emerged from another set piece, a tall plexiglass tube, like creatures rising from the primordial depths before approaching the spaceship-planet the way homo sapiens approached the black monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”: with cautious curiosity. Suddenly, Leandro Damasco Jr., an electrifying performer, seemed pulled to the surface as if by a magnetic force before being apparently sucked into one of the holes. The other nine performers followed, launching a magnificent journey, brilliantly performed to the rhythmic harmonies of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3.
The performers climbed over, through, in and around the beautifully lit structure. They were reptilian one moment, ethereal the next. Waves of movement brought to mind particle physics, protons dancing inside an atom. At one point a male dancer lay on top of the globe and locked elbows with his female partner as she slipped through a hole and swung below him, Cirque du Soleil-style: an elegant, choreographed version of a spacewalk.
Diavolo’s performers manipulate the set pieces into different configurations, a visually arresting technique that is one component of the company’s raw power. But there’s a human component too: performers as strong as Olympic athletes. The women’s upper-body strength puts them on a par with the men. All of them have solid, muscular bodies that seem able to withstand countless falls and tumbles, although I was always aware of the fragility of bodies against the hard structures.
Choreographed in 2012, “Transit Space” is inspired by the documentary film “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” which chronicles Southern California’s extreme skateboarding culture of the 1970s. Four large wood-and-metal ramps dominated the stage. What followed was a surprise: instead of skating down the ramps, the dancers moved sections of them to create metal bridges, symbols of connection. Then came a storm of extreme body-boarding. They ran up the ramps and flung themselves into downward slides, sprang into one-armed handstands at precipitous angles or took breathtaking leaps off the top to be caught by others below. Explosive leaps and dynamic floor work were interspersed with sections awash in gentle contact. The performers made full use of their diverse movement backgrounds: gymnastics, breakdancing, acrobatics and circus arts, as well as jazz and modern dance.
Set to the urban angst and rap poetry of Paul Prendergast’s driving soundscape, “Transit Space” tells a story of alienated urban youth who find community in the skateboarding subculture. They were brash, feisty, unapologetic. And we, the audience, were definitely outsiders. We could observe, but we were not invited in. “Transit Space” ended with a series of thunderously joyful slides down the ramps. I could have done without the choreographed bows and curtain calls at the end of both pieces, but Heim is a showman — and it shows.
He has been criticized for being too consumed with architectural sets and visual effects and too little concerned with choreography. This was the first Diavolo performance I have seen, but it sure looked like dance to me: solos, duets and unison work were well crafted and grounded in strong technique. It seems that Heim is refining his monster truck by giving it a dancing heart.