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If the devil is in the details, then he is all over Diavolo Dance Theater, for every kinetic, aural and visual detail is fully worked out in the company's daring feats of dance. This thrilling troupe from Los Angeles is at Duke for a two-night run, and if you want to heat your blood on a cold night, catch their second performance Saturday, February 9 in Reynolds Theater. Once again, Duke Performances prods our imaginations with the marvelous.
Diavolo is well known on the West Coast, and the evening's first of two pieces was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic (it is the second in a trio of such commissions) and premiered in the Hollywood Bowl in 2010, with the LA Phil playing John Adams' resounding Fearful Symmetries, which gives the dance its name. This music starts fast and gets faster, racing along to the beckoning of brass, and urging even greater speed with its repeating tocsin.
Magicians of exquisite action, the dancers unpack the mysteries of life as they open a huge cube (Diavolo always works with structures). The cube sits center stage on a low rectangular platform, its dark density punctured by hieroglyphic markings, in a circle of light. Its top face is lit, and a bright triangle of light hovers behind it. As the light comes up over the stage, the hieroglyphs are seen to be handholds, every one of which will be used by the ten dancer-acrobats as they swarm over it, opening it like a puzzle box.
They pop sections out and slide others in, and eventually the whole structure opens flat, and its components are manipulated every which way by the dancers. Their snug costumes complement the components: men wear dark gray, with vertical red stripes down the spine; the women's stripes run horizontally across their powerful shoulders. These stripes give the viewer a body-sense of the extreme angles at which the dancers work, as the cubic parts change angles and positions. The dancers leap tall buildings at a single bound; they scale vertiginous heights; they leap ridiculous distances; they fly in swan dives or one-and-a-half gainers into the arms of their fellows. It is madly dangerous, and all in sync with the music.
The cube — though we know they manipulate it — seems to have agency of its own. It presses and pushes, enclosing and trapping — but the dancers' opposing forces are ultimately greater. They escape with their lives, and having deconstructed the cube, gaze into the future with silver telescopes.
After intermission comes a stunningly beautiful earlier work, Trajectoire, from 1999/2001, set to lovely music by Nathan Wang. Trajectoire uses a great rocking structure, part boat, part drum, and the dance relies on the great physical truths of momentum and inertia for its power. All in white this time, the dancers work on either side of the fulcrum, causing the boat to tilt, reverse, rock or stop by the way they position themselves. The idea of shifting balance is furthered by the doubling of the dancers, their pairing and separation. In addition to dancing on the deck of the great boat, they can be seen beneath, inside the translucent half-drum of its base, rocking in accord with the music of the spheres.
The highly recommended program repeats February 9; see the sidebar for more information. Video clips of both pieces are available here.