Los Angeles-based Diavolo prides itself on being a team. Artistic director Jacques Heim says that all of its pieces are created by the dancers. The company's show Friday night at Jones Hall did prove that none of the performers takes precedence over any of the others, but as a group they seem to have an identity problem, or an artistic dilemma, or more likely, both.
Program notes reminded us that members are not only dancers, but gymnasts, actors, and athletes as well. The five men and five women don't truly excel in these areas, though we did admire their endurance, strength, and agility. There was a lot of scurrying, tumbling, extraordinary leaping and balancing, but in the end Diavolo is more like a group of extreme cheerleaders than a dance company. They count out loud to coordinate unison passages, an amateurish methodology. Music is used as atmosphere, a strategy that takes the work more towards the realm of Cirque du Soleil than a contemporary dance ensemble.
Physical extremity is hardly a new approach on the contemporary stage. As Diavolo attempts to show us just how willing it is to take thrill-seeking risks, the performers look more and more like the poor cousins of Elizabeth Streb. The Brooklyn-based pioneer of "Pop Action" and founder of the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics is way ahead of Heim and his flock. Critics called her the Evil Knievel of dance, and none other than the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a "genius" grant. But Streb is at heart an investigator, and Heim is at best a showman, and it's obvious in his work.
Clearly the best piece on the program was Diavolo's recent Fearful Symmetries, set to the John Adams score of the same name, and the result of a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The set is a large cube than comes apart into many coffin-sized boxes, which the performers manipulate into a variety of configurations. The Adams score is without doubt a masterpiece, and here its structure is defined more by lighting cues than by quality of movement. I didn't see William Blake's poem mentioned anywhere in the program, however, and I wondered if Heim was even aware of the source of the title ("Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?).
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Bench, Humachina, Knockturne, and Tete en l'air are shorter and less dazzling chamberworks, and the latter seems like a direct steal of Mark Morris' stellar collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, Falling Down Stairs. Heim has an M.F.A. in choreography from California Institute for the Arts, as well as a Certificate for Analysis and Criticism of Dance from the University of Surrey in England. Really, he should know better.