Dance group 'breathtaking' in triumphant work

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 03:52 PM


Diavolo Dance Theater’s performance Friday at Duke University pompts a word I’ve never used in over 30 years of reviewing dance. That word – “breathtaking” – comes to mind when I see a female dancer fly from one end of a galleon structure to the opposite end and beyond and land in the arms of two fellow performers in the 2010 “Trajectoire.”

How far does she fly without the use of a wire? Twenty feet or more? She seems to glide suspended about 6 feet above the galleon in this gravity-defying feat. She embodies a natural grace and confidence heretofore only ascribed to gulls and other avian inhabitants of the sky.

And, this was only one moment in a program, also featuring the 1999 “Fearful Symmetries,” in which performers not only impress with their agility and athleticism but also with their teamwork, derring-do and ability, through gestures, to evoke the struggles and triumphs of life as people try to keep their footing and courage in the face of ever-shifting circumstances.

The large set pieces in each work: a take-apart cube and a rocking “galleon” represent stage as well as real-world challenges.

In “Fearful Symmetries,” performers constantly take apart and reconfigure the cube’s rectangular “blocks” and then must adapt to the changes. In one configuration, performers struggle against the too-constrictive openings, pushing with their shoulders against the sides. Who hasn’t been in a tight spot or felt too limited by external circumstances? In another dilemma, two blocks move towards each other like sliding doors threatening to squish two performers caught in the middle. They somehow manage to pull themselves out of the way seconds before the doors snap shut.

Performers also arrange the cube’s components into structures that resemble Stonehenge and a Mayan temple. Such monuments evoke mankind’s need, throughout the ages, to make a mark, a lasting sign of their presence – structures that embody a culture and a curiosity about the universe.

This work begins with mystery and suspense as performers cautiously examine a giant cube in a way reminiscent of the apes regarding the space capsule in the film, “The Planet of the Apes.”

“Fearful Symmetries,” set to John Adams’ brassy, upbeat music, connotes can-do, precision teamwork and the ability to come up with creative approaches and adaptations. In “Trajectoire,” Nathan Wang’s ethereal, lyrical score sets a different mood but this work also presents its own physical challenges in the six-foot-tall galleon structure. Balance becomes the main challenge – and, perhaps some queasiness due to the almost constant, rocking motion. (I felt a touch of motion-sickness at one point just watching the galleon pitch and roll).

At times, performers use the motion to their advantage as when four seated dancers slide, one-by-one to the opposite end of the deck until they form one snug line.

In addition to the spectacular flight, repeated a second time, this work features other awe-and fear-inspiring acts that keeps viewers on edge. Performers leap, slip and flip off of the galleon. At times, the structure tips as far over to one side as possible and pushes the balance challenge to the extreme.

Other movements off the deck add to the atmosphere. The beginning of the work proves quite beautiful due to the translucent nature of a scrim on the hull. When backlit, a dancer’s shadow on the inside of the hull mirrors the movements of a dancer on stage in front of the hull. Later, the hull turns into an underwater realm of blue in which two dancers swim.

Back on deck, motion rolls along until a sole passenger remains. She struggles to stay on board but even when she slips off except for a single handhold, she manages to pull herself back on board. She thrusts one fist upward. She has triumphed – and so has the Diavolo Dance Theater.