With only a few words—“Lately, it has been considerably harder to rise,” Jacques Heim, founder and artistic director of the risk-intensive, hyper-physical dance troupe, Diavolo|Architecture in Motion, has managed to capture how so many of us are feeling during the unprecedented crisis perpetrated by Covid-19. These words, written by performer France Nguyen-Vincent frame Diavolo’s first foray into film, This Is Me: Letters from the Front Lines, which was commissioned by the Soraya and is available to view for free on that organization’s Facebook page.
A staggeringly visceral yet uplifting 30-minute work that explores how the current climate of isolation has emboldened us to look within ourselves, the film features veterans and first responders as they share what it means to be true warriors. Augmented by 10 dancers/performers (who co-choreographed with Heim) from the L.A.-based company now in its 28th year, the film was superbly shot and edited by Emmy award-winning cinematographer Aaron Mendez and has, at times, a decidedly Kubrickian feel: The storytelling/text alludes to a weighty, dystopian society as it makes use of unexpected angles and radical close-ups, all the while laced with Heim’s signature derring-do movement vocabulary.
Having worked with veterans since 2015, the director deploys four ex-military personnel in this project (Jim Vincent served as artistic consultant and dramaturge), while Nguyen-Vincent helped create their questions. Included are such inquiries as, “How do you have the strength to rise every morning? How difficult is it to be on the front lines—not only from a military point of view for service, but in the front lines now?”
Heim also recruited Dr. Sasan Najibi, a vascular surgeon and chief of staff at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank, nurse Mariella Keating and EMT Lucas Haas. The film begins with a shot of L.A. as seen from above (great drone work), the disturbing sounds of guns and sirens (Simon Greenberg is the sound engineer), piercing an otherwise tranquil scene.
We are soon in the bedroom of Nguyen-Vincent, where she poses her statement (all declarations are done in voice-overs), simple yet profound, then, donning a hoodie and mask, she is next seen entering Diavolo’s studio. The dancers, who had been subject to a strict quarantine regimen and are all wearing masks, begin to move. Glorious and grand, their actions seem nothing less than vital: Cutting to the bone, grabbing at heartstrings, it’s as if they’re shedding metaphorical blood for all of us now suffering.
The pre-recorded words make the message even more searing, as Tyler Grayson, a former combat medic in the army and currently a senior year nursing student, tells his story surrounded by dancers, who jump, roll and back flip around, in and on top of a number of cubes. (Weighing in at a collective 800 pounds and with more configurations than Mr. Rubik’s, these structures are from “Foreign Bodies,” the first part of the troupe’s trilogy, “L’espace du Temps,” commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic and seen at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007.)
Grayson is soon nearly crushed by the moving walls caving in on him, while the music—a compilation including works from the late Bruno Louchouarn, Jean-Pierre Bedoyan and Robert Allaire—becomes ominous, accelerating at the pace of, well, Covid. Is there a way out? Yes, and it comes in the form of Keating on a two-and-a-half-ton aluminum wheel (“Humachina,” 2002).
The wheel, after all, denotes the circle of life, with Keating talking about how she takes care of the critically ill, symbolically extending life, if you will. “I most definitely see myself as a warrior,” she says, rolling inside the wheel, with dancers Marjella Loughran and Derion Loman in an eerie, but passionate duet in this structure that knows no end.
“I do not consider myself a hero,” adds Keating. “We need to follow the science. We will get through this.”
But heroes they are, with Haas now inside a cage/jungle gym with bars (“Caged,” 1996), declaiming, “I wake up with more purpose and pride in what I do. I don’t feel threatened by Covid . . . ”
As the camera encircles the structure, with Jean-Yves Tessier’s lights now blueish, acrobatics rule, while Haas talks about what weighs heaviest on his mind: “. . . not the illnesses I see, but the flaws and injustice in our medical system.”
The underlying themes are actually not underlying here—they’re front and center, with another set of cubes (“Cubicle: L.O.S.T. Part 1,” 2015) lined up on top of each other like so much dense housing and/or an overcrowded office space.
“We’re all facing the same predicament,” says Nguyen-Vincent from the confines of a cube, these extraordinary obstacles mirroring the virus, its lingering aftereffects, trauma squared, as the dancers pop up and down from within them, struggling, as it were, to get free.
La’Vel Stacy, erstwhile culinary specialist, the Navy, recalls his military service: “I felt disposable. There was no fulfillment.” He and several dancers move on a series of steep ramps (“Transit Space,” 2012), sprinting to the top, sliding down, arms raised in a beseeching gesture, before the camera zooms in on Shannon Corbeil.
Formerly with the Air Force as an intelligence officer, she moves around the ramps, looking free, unfettered by fear. “I remember my mission. To support the fighters, to subvert the invisible threat.”
A change of both tone and pace follows in the form of a scary-looking vertical pegboard that could serve as the centerpiece at an S & M soiree (“D.2.R.,” 1996), with red lights, a kind of fog and disconcerting sounds accompanying Chris Loverro. Once a Civil Affairs Sargent in the Army who served in Mosul, Iraq, he’s now crawling through the deadly-looking steel pegs as dancers maneuver their way through the rods: up and down; wriggling and crawling through them; dismounting in nothing less than, well, backflips.
“No matter how scared you were,” says Loverro, “you weren’t going to let fear overcome you . . . ”
The poles from Diavolo’s “Ibuku” (2017) then morph into combat-like sticks aimed at the unknown (Covid?) before the camera settles on Najibi, who places each pole upright into its appointed slot. He speaks of his difficult journey coming to America when he was 15: “This was my first test of strength.”
With dancer Kate Dougherty moving through this nest of poles, Najibi’s voice-over tells of his work in the hospital where he created “over 100 new ICU beds with reverse flow ventilation . . . I can remain calm. In my line of work, fear is nothing I can embrace. We are resilient. We are strong. And we will get through this and become stronger.”
Meanwhile, as if to illustrate this point, Dougherty lies on what is now a veritable crib of poles, dangerous in their own right—and not to be tried at home!
The penultimate scene has Nguyen-Vincent returning to her bedroom. Unmasking, she lies her head on the pillow, closes her eyes and muses, “I wonder what gives them the strength to rise every morning lately.”
With that Mendez’ camera pulls back, capturing the City of Angels once again, as we, too, no doubt, are wondering the same.
Indeed, watching this haunting and unforgettable film, I marvelled at the courage, grit and humanity of these performers—and couldn’t help thinking about the last lines of The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
And so we do. And so we do.