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A Moving Feat

Époustouflant! Indeed, breathtaking is the word for Diavolo|Architecture in Motion’s world premiere, “Existencia,” the 70-minute commissioned work seen at the Soraya for two performances in mid-January. The brainchild of Jacques Heim, who founded the hyperphysical dance troupe in 1992, the opus commemorated the 30-year anniversary of the 6.7 earthquake that struck Cal State University Northridge and reverberated throughout Los Angeles.

Performance

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion: “Existencia,” Choreography by Jacques Heim, dancers and Amelia Rudolph

Place

The Soraya, Northridge, California, January 17 and January 19, 2024

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in “Existencia.” Photograph by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

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To call the performance, which featured a multi-national cast of 22 dancers, one aerialist, three actors and a bespoke score—performed live onstage by Grammy-winning percussionist Antonio Sánchez (“Birdman”), and his wife, Grammy-nominated vocalist/loop artist Thana Alexa—epic, would be an understatement. Having covered Diavolo for nearly three decades, in 1996, this writer ended her first Los Angeles Times review of the troupe with these words: “One wonders if next time Diavolo might attempt going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.”

“Existencia,” then, was peak daredevilry, with dancers sliding and gliding, darting and dashing, flipping and flying around a set made up of a dozen aluminum towers—ranging in height from seven to fourteen-feet and weighing up to 500 pounds—as well as four ramps and a giant cage reminiscent of an outsized Rubik’s Cube. 

And Diavolo lived—and danced—to tell about it!

Seriously, the work, which was divided into nine sections, including “City Falls,” “Weightlessness,” and “Leandro Glory Damasco, Jr.’s scene, “Symbiosis,” is about so much more than a major disaster: It’s about resilience, courage, sacrifice, commitment and community coming together, all themes that Heim and troupe have also explored with military veterans since 2016. 

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in “Existencia.” Photograph by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

But most of all, “Existencia,” is about how we, as humans, rise to the occasion when help is desperately needed.

Opening with the actors querying several random audience members about their personal experiences with disaster (this prelude is extraneous and would probably not travel well), the curtain then rises to reveal the dancers in silhouette, inhabiting the aforementioned towers, and the tableau looking very much like a Broadway set. (Longtime Diavolo collaborator, Adam Davis, is the set and production designer.) Sánchez soon rises from the orchestra pit, which will be put to very good use, and takes his place behind his drum kit, with Alexa standing at the ready on the opposite end of the stage.

Aaron Franco and Liana Kulchin then become the center of attention as they maneuver themselves inside, around, and on top of the cage. Akin, in a way, to the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this scene, instead of culminating in space travel, is a foreshadowing of the seismic disaster to come. 

And come it did, with Sánchez’s percussive beats abetting Simon Greenberg’s sound effects and video projections, as the towers come crashing down in an unforgettable dramatic experience. The sounds are also near-deafening, but it’s the heart-pounding, nail-biting, fear-inducing scene of chaos that ensues, with the performers tearing around the stage as the towers land within mere inches of their brave, risk-taking bodies. 

Alexa, meanwhile, makes a mantra of the words, “Lost in the city, lost in the city, lost in the city . . ..”

Antonio Sánchez performing in “Existencia.” Photograph by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

The dancers, clad in David Touster’s costumes of muted grays and blacks, are like a drill team—on speed—scurrying for safety, yet, at the same time, heeding the calls of those in need. Cries of “Ayudame,” are heard. But where to look, how to help, with radio reports (archived from that fateful day in January, 1994) beseeching the public: “The big thing is, DO NOT PANIC!”

As the performers nudge the towers’ collapse, there’s little time to save lives. But what there is, is pandemonium, with the dancers deploying the downed towers around the stage as if they were hospital gurneys, while visions of coffins also come to mind. Dancers, including Caribay Franke, who doubles as Diavolo’s project and production manager, and identical twins Alexa and Paulina Donnelly are but several of the dancers in frantic—but fiendishly composed—mode.

People are twisting, spinning and falling backwards, many into the (orchestra) pit. A rescue team arrives, pulling a body from the wreckage: This is the body of 60-year old Amelia Rudolph, founder of the vertical dance troupe, Bandaloop, who then executes a magnificent aerial solo. As Alexa croons, her smoky voice a healing balm, Rudolph soars, reveling in the moment, a moment free from pain and the disaster, both metaphorical and all too real, that is found on earth. 

In a word, Rudolph, who created her solo, embodies hope. And, with arms carving the air, she is beauty personified; a magnet for serenity. 

Alas, reality soon sets in, but this time it comes with a shot of exuberance, as dancers push a quartet of ramps into place. With Rudolph leading the charge and running up a ramp before falling backwards (crash mats are invaluable in “Existencia”), a cadre of dancers follow, moving in pairs and groups of four. Included are Mia Moraru, Kazumo Inohue, Emily Grable and Evan Beek, as well as Daemion Marcuz, and creative technical director, Steven Jasso. Also among the frolickers: assistant rehearsal directors and choreographers Kate Dougherty and Ryan Ruiz. 

Diavolo|Architecture in Motion in “Existencia.” Photograph by Luis Luque, Luque Photography

The liveliness of this section, “Freedom,” brings a modicum of relief. It will, however, be short-lived, as Connor Senning (Diavolo’s main rehearsal director, he is also credited with choreography), performs an aerial duet with Jared Bogart before he ascends, solo, to the proverbial heavens. 

Then, like butterflies emerging from cocoons, the dancers begin to disrobe, revealing themselves in earth tones—and in a new space: The towers are once again upright and bathed in Jean-Yves Tessier’s now bluish lighting.

The performers are, in effect, shedding their old, disaster-infested garments and beginning anew. But not before the group disappears through trap doors only to rise up from the pit in quasi-pyramid formation. With their arms pointing skyward, the troupe has lived to fight another day, or, in this case, to dance another day.

The community that is “Existencia,” was a huge group effort, and came together with the invaluable assistance of Jim Vincent (associate creative director and choreographer), and France Nguyen-Vincent (dramaturg and writer). In addition, the creators looked to Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster for further context. 

The idea that art can affirm one’s faith in the goodness of mankind, was also echoed in several lines of Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which was projected on the screen as Diavolo’s marathon performance came to an end: “That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried. That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.”

Victory, thy name is Jacques Heim—and your exquisite company—who continue to forge new paths in dance, in life and in the theater.     

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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