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Diavolo—Architecture in Motion in “S.O.S—Signs of Strength” with US Army Veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

The Art of War

Diavolo's “S.O.S. – Signs of Strength” brings dancers and Veterans together

Performance
Diavolo|Architecture in Motion™: “S.O.S. – Signs of Strength” and “Trajectoire” by Jacques Heim
Place
Jones Hall/Performing Arts Houston, Texas, October 14-15, 2022
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

The term, “theater of war,” as defined by the National Command Authorities, is the area of air, land and water that is, or may become, directly involved in the conduct of war. To Jacques Heim, founder, artistic director and choreographer of the 30-year old, Los Angeles-based troupe, Diavolo|Architecture™ in Motion, these words have taken on a literal meaning in the context of art: With veterans performing besides dancers in “S.O.S. – Signs of Strength,” which had its Los Angeles premiere in March and was seen as part of a double bill in Houston over the weekend, the work is searing, heartfelt, and emotionally gripping.

A continuation of the Veterans Project, which was founded in 2016 by Jennifer Cheng and is now helmed by Lieutenant Colonel Art DeGroat, “S.O.S.” features voice-overs and live storytelling (dramaturgy by France Nguyen Vincent), during which time these brave souls lay bare their feelings of facing danger and meeting adversity through individual feats of might and resilience. Eventually coming to a place of unity, as well as achieving a sense of belonging that gives meaning to their personal sacrifice and service for the greater good, these men and women bring us into their pasts, their war-torn lives.

Diavolo—Architecture in Motion in “S.O.S—Signs of Strength” with US Army Veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

And for Diavoloholics, not to worry, there’s still plenty of the troupe’s signature movement vocabulary—risk-intensive, hyper-physical dance—on view. With Heim marrying his unshakeable love for dance with his passion for architecture on structures that have ranged from an 800-pound cube to a two-and-a-half-ton aluminum wheel, “S.O.S.” is no different.

Indeed, having evolved from a 1996 work, “D.2.R.-1,” the current iteration, which was associate choreographed by Majella Loughran, again features a Wheeler-designed structure: a movable platform with sockets that sport 10-foot poles—a metaphor for both flagpoles and rifles—with the 16-member khaki-clad cast maneuvering amid these occasionally ominous-looking steel pegs, their slitherings and leaps a display of acrobatic prowess—and beyond.

The work opens with 12-year old Micah Lagunas, son of veteran/gunner Valentina Cahill (also in the piece), addressing the audience from the stage where he defines the words ‘courage’ and ‘sacrifice.’ And so we learn how these various veterans faced danger—in Afghanistan and Iraq, on land and at sea—as they recount their stories: Leah Alexis speaks of the deaths of two of her comrades; Veronica Burgess tells of being on a navy ship as a woman, the issue of harassment part of the mix; marine Anthony Simpson, whose resonant bass voice seems an allegory of untapped strength as he intones, “I knew a boy; I knew a soldier;” Freddie Basnight declares, “I am a proud soldier;” and Alex Meridy speaks of his father as a Viet Nam vet and how, “life isn’t a straight path.”

Diavolo—Architecture in Motion in “S.O.S—Signs of Strength” with US Army Veterans. Photograph by George Simiam

During the soliloquies, which also includes that of veteran Daemion Marcuz, there is, of course, fascinating movement—extreme, subtle, split-second, exaggerated—where these bodies in motion co-exist, their partnering a mark of trust. And yes, while this performance, which also included “civilian” dancers Abe Meisel, Ariana Rodriguez, Ryan Ruiz and others, is decidedly mind-boggling, it’s also something more: It’s body-boggling, as we are swept up in this, well, ride of redemption.

Adding to the piece’s fever pitch is the taped score, with music by Max Richter, Jed Kurzel and Steve Jablonsky. Simon Greenberg’s haunting sound design is heroically cinematic, with the shattering blare of gunfire and rattling choppers conjuring a Brando-esque “Apocalypse Now,” horror scene.

In short, the work is gritty and gorgeous, gut-wrenching and grand, a visceral evening in which human tableaux veer from Hieronymus Bosch-like death spectacles and a valley of crucifixion poses to a living, Iwo Jima moment. With Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting—blood red from time to time, as well as a fog of war gray that feels nothing less than ominous—“S.O.S” makes art out of war.

Jacques Heim meets Sun Tzu.

Guilt, shame and regret also inhabit the work, which ends with the veterans uttering a canon-ish string of phrases that incorporate the word, ‘forget.’ “I will never forget.” “I want to forget.” “I wish I could forget.” “I don’t want to forget . . .”

In keeping with military rituals, “S.O.S.” concluded with the 24-notes of “Taps,” and, after Micah placed a red flower in each of the poles, some 2,000 audience members sprang to their feet in a prolonged, ecstatic ovation.

Jacques Heim, artistic director of Diavolo|Architecture™ in Motion. Image courtesy of Diavolo

Adding icing to this artistic cake was a brief Q & A with the veterans, after which Jacques Heim was recognized by the Department of the Army with a medal for Meritorious Public Service. Given for his pioneering and enduring work in restoring the strengths of veterans through movement arts workshops and public performances, the award was presented to a visibly-moved Heim by DeGroat, who was joined onstage by Master Sergeant David DuPont, and Houston Army Recruiting Company’s Sergeant First Class Steven Mastin.

And while that poignant scene may have been a hard act to follow, after a brief intermission the troupe then deployed its signature piece, “Trajectoire,” which first bowed in 1999. Performed on a 14-by-17-foot-long rocking boat (another Wheeler structure), the work, set to Nathan Wang’s propulsive score, is an astounding tour de force, and comes closest, perhaps, to the art of circus, with the dancers indulging in moves that include breathtaking flights of jumping, sliding, pirouetting, and faux cabrioling on, around and inside the constantly tilting, lit-from-within craft.

A passionate journey of what it means to be human while negotiating—literally—the ups and downs of an altered reality, i.e., this pitching prop, “Traj” reveals the struggles, triumphs, pains and joys of these movement shamans, who were appropriately clad in Meegan Godfrey’s saintly, all white costumes.

As Heim continually tweaks his works, “Traj,” is no exception: Here, in addition to several female dancers swan diving into the arms of waiting performers, a male, Jarel Lewis, also took to the air in several flights/feats of fancy. And did someone say balancing act? With their very lives at stake, split-second timing is crucial in achieving stability in this performative sea of ever-shifting tides.

Also in the superb cast were, in addition to those mentioned in “S.O.S.”, Jose Jose Arrieta, Emily Grable, Aaron Boatright, Simon Greenberg, Liana Kulchin, and Andrii Strelkivskyi, with the performance dedicated to Strelkivskyi’s home country of Ukraine. Leaving an indelible image was the steadfast Kate Dougherty, whose fine work throughout the terpsichorean journey ended with her commandeering the ship in the opus’s final moments, her stance both defiant and exultant.

All told, to witness a Diavolo performance is to witness humanity at its best, and, to paraphrase the veterans, is one that, “We will never forget.”