The Diavolo difference is readily apparent in a skim through the biographies of the company members. Pretty much everyone has the usual training and professional experience in traditional dance, but many do, indeed, have backgrounds in acrobatics, gymnastics, martial arts, and hip-hop—not to competitive cheerleading and circus arts as well. Diavolo company members are clearly skilled multi-disciplinary athletes as well as artists.
The program Diavolo brought to St. Louis this past weekend consisted of two works: "Transit Space" (2012) and "Trajectorie" (1999). Each ran around 40 minutes and while the two were very different in overall tone, they both touched, to varying degrees, on what Mr. Heim describes as Diavolo's primary themes: "human struggle, fear, danger, survival, chaos, order, deconstruction, destiny, destination, faith, and love." That's a tall order but then, this is an ambitious company.
"Transit Space," writes Mr. Heim, "explores themes of feeling lost, finding a sense of purpose, and coming together." As the piece opens, the company members walk onstage in urban street clothes to the sounds of city traffic. Several are carrying what would be skateboards if they had wheels. The sound changes to hip-hop music with voice-overs speaking of urban loneliness. On the words "I want to move," the dancers carrying the skateboards slap them down and use them as platforms for athletic and break dance moves. Then the dancers move upstage, the lights come up all the way, and we see four convex wood and metal constructs that are basically simplified versions of the ramps used by skateboarders and urban stunt bikers.
The metal ramps are detachable, creating eight separate pieces that (as shown in the video accompanying this review) are rapidly recombined into a number of playing spaces. Dancers leap, slide, tumble, and do just about anything you can think of on them in a dazzling display of athleticism. Throughout it all, actors on the soundtrack give voice to the many moods of urban life. The piece hits an emotional peak when all of the dancers join hands in the center of the stage on the words "as long as I have you, I don't have fear" and the stage goes black. Point made, and very effectively.
The big set piece for "Trajectorie" is a half moon-shaped, rocking wooden stage with a scrim on the front. As the work opens, a lone female dancer does a lyrical "shadow game" routine with another dancer seen only in silhouette. As more dancers enter the action becomes more animated, and before long the hemispherical stage is rocking and rotating while dancers slide on and off, dash back and forth, and even leap into space, propelled by the stage. Those leaps produced some audible gasps from the audience as the dancers flew through the air and were caught expertly by their teammates.
There was a bit more classical ballet in "Trajectorie" (although not very much) and more moves that were reminiscent of martial arts (tai chi in particular) but otherwise it shared with "Transit Space" an emphasis on virtuoso movement of all kinds. Unlike the newer work, though, "Trajectorie" ends not with a crescendo and climax so much as a slow diminuendo. Towards the end of the piece the other dancers disappear, one by one, behind the rocking centerpiece until, at last, we're back to the solo female dancer of the beginning. Then she, too, slowly disappears behind the construct.
Mr. Heim says that the work "shows the transcendence of the human soul against all odds", but to me there was something of an elegiac feel to those final moments that was more surrender than transcendence. But maybe I'm over-analyzing it. Or, perhaps, there's less difference between transcendence and surrender than I think. Either way, "Trajectorie" is a reminder that art lives, for the most part, in ambiguity.
If what we saw this weekend at the Touhill is any indication, Diavolo is an innovative, hard to classify, and possibly even unique dance company. It is, in short, the kind of thing Dance St. Louis has been bringing us for many years now. May they continue for many more.
The Dance St. Louis season continues with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at the Fox April 25 and 26 and concludes Memorial Day weekend with the 7th Annual Emerson Spring to Dance® Festival at the Touhill Center. For more information: dancestlouis.org.