Like Pilobolus and its offshoots, Jacques Heim's locally based Diavolo Dance Theater transforms non-dance motion into dance metaphor. But Diavolo's movement choices often reflect architectural conditions: how to use a staircase, for instance. Or the face of a vertical platform.
A program dominated by works-in-progress offered plenty of Diavolo skill and daring over the weekend at Highways--but also insights about the way pieces evolve. Indeed, evolution turned out to be the theme of "Chamber," which enlisted eight dancers--all but one hidden under a rippling fabric floor stretched across the stage.
The actions of the cast and the lighting effects by Chad Smith could make this surface look like ocean waves, bubbling lava or the biggest milkshake in the universe. But soon after life-forms and humanoid face-shapes rose into view, Rebecca A. Butala emerged long enough to body-surf: rolling and sliding atop her invisible colleagues.
An effective surprise ending (which won't be revealed here) made a wry comment on human arrogance, but the movement development from Butala's entrance to that point remained sketchy. However, "Chamber" had a satisfying dramatic shape compared to other uncompleted company collaborations seen Saturday.
"Equilibre," for instance, found Nick Erickson strapped to a chair atop a coiled spring, using his body weight to launch spectacular sway-and-swoop maneuvers that the piece tried to weld into some kind of statement. But the quasi-Kafka interrogation scene and other infusions of strenuous playacting never erased the impression of a carnival act with delusions of grandeur.
More playacting and more grandiose delusions dominated the ensemble piece "Divan d'Enfer," which linked hoary Theatre of the Absurd word games with familiar sex-war strategies to get the cast leaping and vaulting atop six sofas. Yes, the gymnastics proved thrilling, but the textual ironies and courtship rituals strained needlessly for relevance.
In contrast, "D.2.R.II" showed Diavolo rep after the works-in-progress process honed a piece to its essence. Here, the company scrambled up a free-standing wall, hanging from its edges and from rope-loops on its surface. Slide projections turned the wall into a ledge, a flight of steps, a skyscraper facade--with the cast instantly accommodating itself to each new environment.
As always, Daniel Wheeler's set units provided ideal contexts for such brilliant transformations and the Diavolo composers took part in the stage action: Jean-Pierre Bedoyan in "Divan D'Enfer" and Juliet Prater in "Chamber."
* Diavolo Dance Theater appears Thursday through Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets: $12. (213) 660-8587.