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Getting its ideas out in the open

Diavolo Dance Theatre puts an outdoor setting to imaginative use; its choreography works best when evoking childhood wonder.

July 17, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

"Without your help, there is no dance," Diavolo Dance Theatre founding choreographer Jacques Heim told the audience Friday at California Plaza, where the company appeared as part of the Grand Performances series.

He invited people to make up their own stories as his 10-member troupe tackled various challenging, task-oriented pieces not only on the main stage but on satellite spaces -- a Cabaret Gazebo beyond the audience at the left, a stage at the left front edge of the central pool, the Marina Pavilion at the right and even in the shallow pool itself. Perhaps no other company has used the outdoor facility so extensively and imaginatively.

Audience stories were supposed to be 50% of the experience, Heim said. At first it was easy to comply. In the opening piece, "D2R-A," the company hurtled up and over a tall, rough-faced peg board (set by Daniel Wheeler), as if in a military training exercise or assault. Friday was, after all, Bastille Day.

Some triumphed. Some helped others succeed. Some were stricken, wounded, left hanging, victims of the struggle. Personalities were irrelevant, yet the piece became poignant.

But as the program progressed, the sets became more polished and glamorous, the works more mechanistic and abstract, and the dancers increasingly presented their splendid young bodies with an impersonal salesmanship that suggested fashion models on display.

In "Phantome," Ken Arata, Becca Greenbaum, Renee Larsen and David Zibalese tested balances by climbing around door frames of varying heights. In "Origin," Melinda Ritchie evoked birth as she slithered through the thighs of a totemic female figure set in the pool. At the same time, Philip Flickinger and Garrett Wolf were hanging and posturing in different ways from a gyroscopic globe in the Marina Pavilion.

The biggest and most challenging works were "Humachina" and "Trajectoire," each with giant sets -- a huge metal wheel assembled on stage in the first and an even larger ship's hull in the second by Jeremy Railton and Wheeler, respectively. Each presented the company with its greatest challenges of balance, timing and coordination, which the dancers executed faultlessly. There were real thrills to be had here.

Heim's choreography worked best when it evoked moments of childhood playfulness and wonder. But those moments came less and less often. The set pieces, which anchored the action, so promising at first, began limiting movement possibilities, leading to dull variations.

There's a high wow factor to some of this but a basic emptiness at the core.

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