LA-based dance troupe Diavolo’s founding artistic director Jacques Heim considers himself more of an architect of motion than a choreographer. Instead of teaching his dancers a fully-formed piece, the French-born director begins simply by introducing a concept to his dancers – a question, a message, or an architectural structure – and leaves it to the dancers to form their own interpretation.
Whether you’re a dance maverick or purist, there's no doubt that Heim has stayed true to his artistic mission since Diavolo's beginning in 1992. Incorporating ballet, modern dance, acrobatics and circus, the group’s main interest has always been the urban environment, and its relationship with the individual. Its 2013 production Fluid Infinities saw ethereal figures emerging and disappearing through the craters of a huge, glowing dome to the music of Philip Glass’s 'Symphony No. 3', and Fearful Symmetries of 2010 evoked the industrial landscape with a series of imposing steel beams.
Diavolo’s latest project is Transit Space: a 45-minute piece which forms half of their Architecture in Motion series. The second half, Trajectoire, was first performed in 1999, and is considered a signature work for the group.
Behind the State Theatre’s heavily embroidered curtains, Transit Space begins as a swelling of urban traffic noise. The curtains open, and we’re immersed in the centre of a city teeming with strangers, friends and couples. They’re negotiating several tall, curved structures of wood and metal. We soon realise that they’re half pipes, and that the wooden props the people are carrying are skateboards.
Inspired by skateboarding, the piece follows a rag-tag group of individuals who find a sense of community in the culture created beneath and between city landmarks. Perhaps visual poetry is the most appropriate way to describe Transit Space, as it does not have a storyline, and yet is far more than a visual spectacle.
The dancers do not speak, but interpret the urgent, searching lyrics of LA-based spoken word artist Steve Connell through their movement. They possess the emotive physical power of ballerinas, and yet, their movement feels impossibly natural and de-stylised.
Heim’s choreography is impressively restrained. Withholding showy acrobatics, the piece's strongest moments are its intimate scenes which enrapture the audience with fluid intensity and speak of the chance connections with strangers in a crowd. The soundtrack, composed by Paul James Prendergast, provides an infectious blend of big-bass hip hop and rock, which builds to meet the fast-paced finale of tricks and flips that any skateboarder would envy.
Trajectoire comes from a much more spiritual, conceptual dimension than the firmly grounded Transit Space. This time, the only set piece is a huge, rocking galley – a bisected ship. The way that the white-clad dancers balance on either side of the plunging structure, creating a narrative arc purely through movement and music, reminds us of Heim’s work with Cirque du Soleil. Nathan Wang’s delicate classical score is understated and sublime, and the piece builds to gasp-inducing heights of daredevil leaps.
While some dance/acrobatic fusion pieces risk shutting audiences out with the complacency of safety, the rocking of Trajectoire’s boat soon seems almost vertical, and catastrophe feels imminent. Each high dive feels like a real leap of faith, and by the time that the boat finds refuge from stormy waters, we take notice of our sweaty palms.
If Transit Space’s fun finale felt a little unfocused, then Trajectoire left the audience with a satisfying, contemplative conclusion. Leaving one of the principal dancers perching alone on the bow of the galley, we consider the journey she has taken to get to this point – the risky moves, the impossible balancing acts – and incredibly, we’re able to see the relationship between her personal journey and our own, through her interaction with the structures surrounding her.
Trajectoire is a piece that is unlikely to age with time, whereas Transit Space is steeped in modern references. Together, as Architecture in Motion, Diavolo’s Melbourne showcase is an impressive insight into just where the limits of dance may – or may not – be.