The gut-level elements of risk, trust and survival are a few themes Diavolo will explore in a performance Friday evening, October 15, at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. The program features “Fearful Symmetries,” a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic commission set to John Adams’ score, and “Tete en L’Air” (“Head in the Sky”), inspired by the surreal work of French filmmaker Jacques Tati, also to music by Adams.
Diavolo differs from just about every other contemporary dance company around, exploring how humans interact physically with huge architectural shapes — such as an enormous cube that transforms into six huge oblong structures, suggesting Stonehenge or a cityscape; or a surrealistic, oversized staircase. The 10-member troupe, comprising dancers, acrobats, actors, gymnasts and rock climbers, explores nearly every way the human body can relate to these forms; they climb, somersault and leap off of precipices. One disappears into a stair. People thrown into survival situations overcome peril through trust and teamwork.
In a recent telephone interview, Diavolo artistic director Jacques Heim told me that he feels a stronger affinity for sculptors and architects than for other choreographers. With no early dance training, Heim got his start in a street theater group, performing on top of subway cars in his native Paris. He later discovered dance at Middlebury College in Vermont and, on finishing a master’s degree in choreography at the California Institute of the Arts, began creating dances using large architectural shapes. In 1992, Heim founded Diavolo in Los Angeles, and the troupe has been touring nationally and internationally for the past dozen years.
Some critics have said that Heim’s work puts too much emphasis on visual spectacle and acrobatics, that it’s entertaining but lacks depth and meaningful content. Naturally, Heim disagrees, saying that the physical striving played out on stage can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition. “What I do on stage is a live, abstract painting,” he says. “Abstract, but there are very strong themes, such as human struggle … survival, faith, love.”
What makes Diavolo special, Heim says, is something that must be experienced — it’s witnessing how hard the dancers work during the course of the program, their fearlessness and trusting rapport. Even after 18 years, he says, presenters still find it difficult to describe Diavolo. But “As soon as you bring an audience into the theater, at the end of a concert, they get it.”
Audience members can meet the dancers after the concert in “Dance Dialogues,” the first in a series of free, post-performance discussions led by Ferst Center director George Thompson.