Diavolo puts unique twist on dance in SU residency

Visiting acrobatic dance company fuses wide influences with a creative artistic experience.

Here, artists are considered to be weirdos.

At least that’s how Diavolo Dance Theater’s Jacques Heim sees it.

“I come from Europe, and the arts are exactly as important as brushing your teeth,” the company’s artistic director said. “In North America, to be completely honest,” with a glance over his shoulder and a lowered voice he continued, “it doesn’t really exist.”

But Heim made it his mission to help change that.

Photo: Amanda Marzullo
The dance group focuses its work so "someone who is not trained or doesn't know anything about dance can appreciate it," artistic director Jacques Heim said.

Since 1992, Diavolo’s unique mashup of acrobatic, modern and hip-hop movement around huge structures (to this day, Heim has difficulty describing what the company is— he believes that’s what makes it so interesting) has redefined the traditional dance experience. This past week, the Los Angeles-based company gave Syracuse University and the greater community an inside look into their work with a five-day residency through the Arts Engage office, culminating in a preview performance of its most recent piece, “Transit Space,” and signature dance, “Trajectoire,” at the Landmark Theatre.

Colleges such as Visual and Performing Arts, Arts and Sciences and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, as well as local dance studios, participated in various workshops hosted by Diavolo’s staff and dancers to get a better understanding of the company’s inner workings— a key component to Diavolo’s operation.

“Critics say what Diavolo does is not dance; they’re not wrong, but they’re not totally right. The work is right between the arts and entertainment, and that was a conscious decision,” Heim said. “I want to make dance for the masses, to introduce them to the importance of movement.”

Along with its death-defying leaps from high sets and rock star bravado on stage, Diavolo cracks that barrier open through devoting 50 percent of their focus to education. Hundreds of aspiring, pre-teen dancers were rounded up onto the Landmark Theatre’s carpeted balcony each day and schooled in the subject of the “Diavolo technique.” Students were asked to partake in falling, trust-building exercises that are routinely applied by the performers for their athletic stunts.

For B-boy Anibal Sandoval, engaging in classes like these is a regular part of his work with the dance company, and believes it’s even more rewarding than the actual performance.

“I didn’t have residencies at nearby universities when I was growing up and I think it’s a great opportunity for young people,” Sandoval said. “They were surprised by what we were teaching them, and it was cool because they were smiling and saying, ‘I’ve never done something like that before.’”

Theater and design technology major Elizabeth Engstrom experienced her own “a-ha” moment during the Thursday night rehearsal of “Transit Space,” which will make its world premiere at Pennsylvania State University next week. The junior and the other lighting design students in the workshop helped sculpt a scene for the new dance. Just seeing the lighting plan appear with the rest of the cues in the performance was particularly fulfilling, she said. 

Even more, Engstrom appreciated the fresh and exciting enthusiasm Diavolo fuses into its repertoire. “It has potential for getting more people interested in dance who probably wouldn’t have thought about it before,” she said, noting the creative way the dancers mimicked urban movements in their choreography.

Based on the documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, “Transit Space” incorporates four skateboard ramps and physical interactive technologies to portray both the look and feel of the skateboarding subculture.  A group of 10 gymnasts, rock climbers and modern dancers jumped, arched and slid down the structures in intricate sequences as sounds of cars whizzing enhanced the imagery. The audible gasps from Friday night’s audience only heightened throughout the 30-minute performance of “Trajectoire,” when performers gracefully teetered on a 12-foot wide galleon and then catapulted off the rocker into another’s arms on the stage. The range of Diavolo’s abilities had audience members rising to their feet in a thundering ovation at the show’s end— proving that Heim might be on to something with his distinctive approach to dance.

“Our work is very visual, very visceral, so someone who is not trained or doesn’t know anything about dance can appreciate it,” he said. “Even if we aren’t really presented as the crème de la crème of dance companies, there’s value in what we do. And I’m OK with that.”

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