Diavolo Dance Theater

January 26, 2000

Darren Press and Meegan Godfrey from Diavolo Dance Theater

Photo by Blaine Covert

Diavolo Dance Theater

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Portland, Oregon

January 26, 2000

Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

There was much to admire and little to engage when the Los Angeles-based Diavolo Dance Theater made its Portland debut with Catapult, La Comedie Humaine, an evening-length multimedia piece for which White Bird, the company’s Portland presenter, was one of seven commissioning organizations. The mostly mediocre music was created by film composer Michel Colombier.

From the opening section-complete with dry ice fog, a giant silvery sculpture of a woman reclining backward and propped up on her arms and pointed toes like a coffee table designed by Salvador Dali, and a pas de deux of sorts, performed en l’air on a rope-you knew artistic director Jacques Heim was out to impress.

Certainly the ten well-muscled dancers in the company are fetchingly athletic, and their choreographed interactions with various props-that sculpture, giant pieces of furniture, a circular banquette that becomes a wheel, and the aforementioned rope-demand more, much more, overt physicality than subtle artistry.

But then subtlety is not what this company is about. Heim founded Diavolo in 1992, his goal to create large-scale, interdisciplinary performances and “examine the funny and frightening ways individuals interact with their environment.” And, in Catapult, each other. A section involving most of the dancers is about extremely unpleasant hostility between the sexes, as women lift physically subdued men, men and women crash into one another, bodies pile on bodies with an undercurrent of raunchy violence to music with an overt, aggressive beat.

“Bon Jour,” a clown turn that takes place in front of the curtain while props are being moved into place, features a number of crotch grabs during the course of a takeoff on the ever-trendy tango. The first grab is funny; the fourth one is a bore.

And that is the basic problem with the piece: when the director (who choreographs in collaboration with the dancers) finds something that works, it gets repeated to the point of overkill. Still, it is well designed in many portions-there is an orderliness amidst the chaos that, like the Parisian Heim, is very French-which makes it visually interesting.

The wheel cum banquette is a case in point. As it rolls across the stage with dancers performing inside it, it elicits a frisson of potential danger, an edginess that lasts for several minutes and makes it quite riveting. But it, too, goes on far too long.

A piece of dangerous dancing that does work is in the opening and closing duets on the rope. Those are lyrical, lovely and completely engaging-particularly the final one, which is framed by the rocking halves of the wheel as the curtain descends.