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Flash Review 2, 1-6: Existentialism a la Gus Giordano
Diavolo's Mixed Bag of Thrills

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

Jacques Heim's world is filled with objects. Staircases, tires, sleds, skis, the hull of a boat, ladders, benches and people flying through the air. Like his influences, Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte and French filmmaker Jacques Tati, Heim specializes in a unique brand of visual thinking reflective of modern society and the absurdities of human behavior. Heim's choreography for Diavolo, his L.A.-based company of ten, seen Wednesday at the Joyce Theater, reveals a man who finds poetry in street traffic patterns. He leads the audience through a tunnel of non-sequiturs to see the fireworks in the harbor, the fireworks being a non-stop barrage of dancers bounding through the air, frenetic push-pull pop action for the masses. The fireworks are everywhere. The problem with fireworks is that, sometimes, too many can be as numbing as too few. It's a sensory overload that results in white noise monotony.

Heim's attempts to make his work profound seem to be a bit at odds with his desire to thrill. On the one hand, he uses stark symbolist imagery to represent specific types of people in strained situations. People squabble over ladders and bench space. A man folds a woman up and puts her in his suitcase. Then, there's the catharsis. Let the audience experience the high of propulsive, non-stop tumbling and free flight, a happy opiate. It's the kinesthetic equivalent of an adrenaline rush that lasts for 20 minutes at a time. Darkness transitions to light almost too easily, as if all the inner demons were just bubblegum conversation. Heim's obsession with semiotics as well as the extreme thrill of freak flyers makes his work resemble an odd mix of Disney and Sartre. I'd like the lo-cal angst, please.

Heim credits Magritte and Tati as the primary influences behind his 1994 signature piece "Tete en L'Air," in which dancers descend a giant staircase in a parade of urban archetypes. French comic genius Tati designed his films as a series of escapades, a veritable symphony of sight and sound gags; Heim creates a cinematic montage of human relations designed with impeccably timed visual humor. Following a European dance-theater tradition, the piece begins ominously, dancers appearing in dark suits and descending the stairs like a slow conversation. A woman emerges from a suitcase. Two men wander off. Two more appear in bowlers (a nod to Magritte), while another plays the accordion and another reads the newspaper. A man sleds his way down the stairs while a woman skitches her way down atop a tire. The dark sinister elements give way to playful abstractions, like bodies bounding through the air while the staircase opens to reveal trap doors within. In the end, a man appears atop the stairs and raises his arms Broadway-finale style. Life is a cabaret, old chum.

Similarly episodic and chaotic is "Trajectoire," where dancers become travelers on an apocalyptic journey. The magnificent set designed by Daniel Wheeler and engineered by Dan Williams is a massive cross-section of a ship's hull, an abstracted 21st century galleon that dips and sways with the weight of the dancers' movements. Part Noah's Ark, part Titanic, the ship becomes a symbol of the passengers' difficult journey. Meegan Godfrey, a dancer with fiery intent and primal rawness, a female Sisyphus, emerges from the crossbeams below the ship's deck to perform a playful dance with her shadow/alter ego. The people come and go talking of Michelangelo. Bodies collide and slide overboard. The dancer/athletes rock the boat, then succumb to the vessel's sways. A few cloying cliches sneak in -- dancers rolling on the floor like waves, hands reaching out to grasp the hand of falling victims -- but all is forgiven for the grandeur of the waltz.

Less successful are Heim's prop pieces -- "Apex," with its red ladders and "Le Siege" with its red benches. In "Tete en L'Aire" and "Trajectoire," the dancers are subsumed by a set piece -- first, a massive staircase and, later, a ship's hull. When the sets are reduced in size to props handled by the performers, the magic depends on the deft manipulation of objects. In "Apex," the shuffling of ladders falls just short of seamless, and the dangling between ladders is not quite precarious enough to make you gasp. Nor does the movement contain that Streb-like thrill of impact, making it more banal than breathtaking. Similarly, the benches in "Le Siege" support a rather standard fare of push-pull partnering. Amidst the dancers' knowing looks and coy glances at one another, you have an endless cycle of pose-push-pull-throw-jump-pose. At times, the perky daredevils resemble one of those cheerleading drill squads on ESPN2. It's existentialism a la Gus Giordano.

Nevertheless, the dancers themselves, though not the most plastic elastic movers, win the audience over with their go-for-broke attitude and utter fearlessness in flight. It's not quite poetry in motion, but Jacques Heim's daring attempts to make poetry from motion set him apart from the pack. His works to date seem to overuse effects for the sake of FX, following in the footsteps of many a Hollywood blockbuster action thriller. But Heim's a risk-taker, and I'm looking forward to following his next string of feats in the years to come.

Diavolo performs again today and tomorrow at 2 p.m., tonight at 8 p.m., and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site.

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