For 20 years, Diavolo has been Los Angeles’ wild child, a company of daredevil dancers leaping and cavorting on pitching wheels, Goliath walls and other playground equipment from a super-sized Wonderland.
An unsettling issue kept nagging: Was it circus or was it dance? Artistic director Jacques Heim intended the latter, but he couldn’t always convincingly make the case. The choreography’s superhuman feats often overwhelmed the metaphorical themes within.
But a corner has been turned. Perhaps choreographing Cirque de Soleil’s “Kà” a few years back helped Heim bring his own work into focus; if so, it was an ironic twist of fate. Whatever the case, his latest piece, “Transit Space,” is his most thoughtful and expressive, a creative tribute to him, this cast of 10 --his choreographic collaborators -- and the slew of designer-engineers who help make magic happen.
Commissioned by Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts and Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, “Transit Space” had its local premiere Friday at the Broad Stage (repeating Saturday and Sunday). Southern California skateboard culture and the 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys” were the points of departure here.
“Transit Space” has an infectious rock soundtrack (from veteran composer Paul James Prendergast) and a hip, contemporary vibe, thanks to its street-clothes costumes and the loose way the dancers hang about the stage.
Most significantly, the dancers are people in “Transit Space” – not acrobatic automatons. It’s a youthful spiritual journey that’s front and center, from troubled aloneness to a still-questing, but supportive community.
The piece’s “play” equipment consists of movable wooden skateboard ramps and interlocking metal bridges, conceived by longtime set designer Mike McCluskey with Tina Trefethen and Sibyl Wickersheimer. The set was continuously shifting, each position matching well with points in the loose story.
Skateboards appear only briefly and they are props without wheels. The focus is on the dancers, who by using their bodies, become freer -- skittering up, sliding down and throwing themselves into the void. Too, they spent more time with feet on the ground, where they impressed with inspired duets of contact improvisation and intricate hip-hop solos.
A running voice-over, written by Steve Connell, expressed plainly the signposts from fear and pain, to taking risks for love. Omar Olivas, Anibal Sandoval, Ashley Nilson, Chisa Yamaguchi and Shauna Martinez were standouts among a universally outstanding cast.
The program opened with “Trajectoire,” an 11-year-old, two-section piece set on a rocking 21st century galleon, as Heim has called the wood and metal ark (designed by Daniel Wheeler). “Trajectoire” is vintage Diavolo, a quick-paced and astonishing feat of strength and fearlessness. With this cast – and particularly with Martinez’s soulful female Sisyphus – defying gravity doesn’t just look easy. It feels like the human spirit, ever enduring.