Though it was a nice two-hour distraction from the troubles and annoyances of the real world, an evening with Diavolo barely touched my soul.
Sleek set pieces, daredevil acrobatics, and beautiful cast members weren’t enough to propel the L.A.-based ensemble’s April 18 performance at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota beyond entertaining spectacle to thought-provoking work of art. Overall, this performance was like a parkour-inspired, prop-heavy, musical theater production, without the singing.
The company presented two works that were choreographed by the dancers under the leadership of performer, choreographer, and company archivist Leandro Damasco, and directed by artistic director Jacques Heim. Their collaboration resulted in a blend of gymnastics, contemporary jazz, and storytelling, performed in an atmosphere populated by geometric set pieces, and heavily peppered with glitz and bravado.
The program materials described Diavolo as a company that presents “architecture in motion.” After seeing the work, I’m more inclined to call it motion informed by architecture. And this seems to align with the company leader’s perspective. In a pre-curtain speech, Heim explained that the underlying motivation for all Diavolo repertory was his own curiosity about the way human beings are affected by their surroundings.
First up was the world premiere of Diavolo’s newest work, Cubicle. Throughout the piece, the dancers lugged, stacked, rolled, and slid 50-pound cubes half their height stage, creating grids, pyramids, lines, and other shapes. Each new arrangement offered a new opportunity for the performers to leap from, tumble through, lean over, and slide across. The set was inspired by the work of Thomas Flake, an engineering student at the University of St. Thomas. This work, as the title suggests, was a riff on office mundanity. As the performers lugged and stacked the cubes, I thought of filing cabinets, piles of paperwork, and cubicles. Perhaps the movements onstage represented some (or all) of these.
After intermission came Transit Space, which originally premiered in 2012. Again, the dancers established an onstage environment by moving objects around the space. This time, however, they worked with tall, shiny half-pipes, wide aluminum arcs, and flat wooden boards that looked like skateboards without wheels. Once they had configured the half-pipes and arcs in a particular way, the dancers would run up, slide down, jump on, and throw themselves off of them.
Both pieces would have benefited from more attention to character development and overall arc of the action. Neither was a strict narrative. But in each, the dancers played specific roles and the action onstage moved toward a particular end. Any impetus behind or reasoning for these components was pretty well concealed from the audience. As a result, much of the activity onstage seemed unprovoked, excessive, and inauthentic. A bit of restraint among the performers would have remedied this.
Cubicle and Transit Space closed in on the emotional and behavioral impact of an individual’s environment, evoking themes like sex, longing, aggression, freedom, community, and perseverance. Though the concepts addressed were relatively accessible, the manner in which they were evoked was often trite or downright problematic.
Aggression was depicted in the context of a corporate work environment illuminated by fluorescent bulbs. Freedom was equated with the removal of clothing. Frustration was pacified with theatrical cigarette breaks. Sex took the form of a workplace seduction scene sparked by a woman revealing her leg to a man. None of these approaches struck me as innovative and some, especially that seduction bit, left a sour taste in my mouth. American employers might be behind the times when it comes to equity in the workplace, but I’d like to think that we artists have moved on from that perspective. Unfortunately, Diavolo’s depiction of workplace dynamics, which gives women the role of coquette or enraged task-master, suggests that even artists have a long way to go.
The props and scenic pieces that characterize Diavolo’s work are masterfully designed and beautifully made. The materials used are high-quality and expensive. All of this makes for a slick and streamlined onstage aesthetic. Yet, flashy set pieces come across as mere crutches used to prop up undeveloped ideas or distract the audience from superficial ones. Even jaw-dropping acrobatic feats grow tiresome eventually. I’d like to see a future project in which Diavolo explores more nuanced ways of engaging with an environment and, therefore, an audience.