The interior of the studio in downtown Los Angeles looks like the Jolly Green Giant's Tinker Toys set. A 3,000-pound, pie-shaped piece of aluminum sits in one corner, flanked by four pieces of a massive, spoked aluminum wheel. A few feet away, the larger-than-life fiberglass statue of a woman on all fours thrusts her gleaming pelvis skyward next to an oversized wooden wall by sculptor Daniel Wheeler, which is strategically impaled with pegs. Freestanding wooden doors in their door frames—leftovers from a Buster Keaton sketch?—litter the remainder of the space. Red benches are scattered everywhere, and what looks like a mini soccer net is draped atop a tower of boxes. Ladders—some curved, some straight—and an object resembling a 15-foot slice of blue Swiss cheese punctuate the surreal assemblage.
Deeper within the warehouse, a purpose becomes apparent. Five men, lanky and strong, and five pert, muscular women from the dance group Diavolo, founded in 1992, prepare to utilize the only area somewhat free of debris—the dance floor. They gather in a huddle and make eye contact, reassuring their fellow dancers that they'll catch each other when the high-flying, acrobatic choreography ensues.
"It's about teamwork and trust, that's what the audience will see," Monica Campbell, Diavolo's associate artistic director, says. Their interplay with a surreal physical environment, tonight and tomorrow night at Carpenter Center, should be obvious. The group's first piece, Le Seige, is designed for children and is more physical comedy than modern dance; in it, the dancers battle for a scrap of space on the sacred red bench. The second piece, a portion of Trajectoire, is vintage Diavolo. Set atop the flat area of a 3,000-pound half-circle that pitches like the deck of a 14-foot galleon, it looks a lot like platform diving. As the circle shifts, a dancer leaps off the apparatus with her body extended, the arc of her belly catching the light like a fish twisting and turning between the sun and its reflection in water. The soundtrack to these brief moments of fish freedom: the squeaks of tennis shoe against Marley and the mutters of "set" as dancers throw and catch each other.
Their interplay has 10 years of rehearsals behind it, former dancer and current general manager Jeremy Jacobs says, remembering when founder Jacques Heim began Diavolo in a classroom at the Orange County High School for the Performing Arts. "It was a regular classroom, you know, linoleum floors," he says. The Parisian-born choreographer, whose grandfather reportedly invented the bikini, would give them props and say, "Go play."
Over time, Heim's patented man-versus-machine choreography achieved international bookings, a studio in LA and critical success. Today, Diavolo dancers play with odd props and huge devices, channeling the Industrial Age, Daniel Deronda, humanity and architecture. The style at times can be serious; the whimsy of a Cirque du Soleil performance will not be found here (although the director did choreograph the Las Vegas piece K for the Montreal-based company). Instead, look for acrobatics, camaraderie, and the tension that accompanies feats of great strength and daring.
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For their upcoming performance, Heim's reworked version of Tomb du Ciel will premiere along with the 1999 work Trajectoire. Notable pieces within Tomb du Cielinclude "Origin," a duet between a flesh-and-blood female and the idealized statue of a woman, and "Capture(d)," a duet matching a man strapped to the inside of a bowl with a woman he can't quite hold on to. Periodically, he picks her up and then rolls away like a wayward marble.
To accomplish this mockery of nature, Diavolo seeks dancers with superb strength and daredevil nerves. "We want dancers who are amazingly strong," Paige Harman, a company member since 2003, says before getting a quick tuneup from the silver-haired chiropractor on-site. As part of her audition, Harman remembers, she was required to do as many chin-ups as possible. "I did 15, but I think adrenalin was kicking in," she says modestly. Do they ever hire dancers without that rush, who can't pull 15 chin-ups, who are afraid of heights?
Campbell looks at me as if I am nuts. "One of the things we look for is the ability to overcome that," she says.
DIAVOLO, CARPENTER CENTER, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY LONG BEACH, 6200 ATHERTON BLVD., LONG BEACH, (562) 985-4274; WWW.CARPENTERARTS.ORG. THURS. & SAT., SEPT. 29 & OCT. 1, 8 P.M. $33-$40.