Diavolo Dance Theatre is touring a double-bill of works exploring the concept of ‘Architecture in Motion’. This performance was energetic and vibrant with every performer giving their all in a clearly physically demanding production. As a gymnastics display and movement piece this is a breathtaking display of daring although very few would confidently call it dance. In regards to the artistic theory driving the performance it sounds a little like a grant grab and when most present seems embarrassingly heavy-handed. It was very exciting though and felt like an extreme sports event or a stunt show and if either of those things appeals then I would highly recommend this.
That isn’t to say that I take for granted the ‘dancers’. It was thrilling to see such trained athletes display physicality that could only be achieved through years of training. There were moments of dance that could be the example for all those who ever think they can dance and the choreography, although I don’t think the company would use that archaic term, was so honed and practiced that it was smooth and mostly staggeringly graceful. Some of the performers are obviously classically trained dancers. By this I don’t mean to privilege classical training and conservative concepts of dance I just mean to say that some of these performers were so emotive and used their whole body to convey a concept. With these performers it was possible to see every gesture and movement as adding to what Diavolo has stated is the performance of an abstract painting. Sometimes it did get close to art. Others were stunt performers and gymnasts and again it was obvious that they were highly trained. I cheered like a child at the circus watching the somersaults and the death defying leaps. Well, the reserved Melbourne audience equivalent of a cheer at least. Sometimes it felt like watching a variety show with alternating modes of performance.
The concept of Architecture in Motion (their capitalisation) is an interesting idea that is wasted as it becomes a vehicle for spectacular performance. The notion that the work will examine ‘the relationship between the danger of our environment and the fragility of the human body’ is best seen in the demonstration of the principle that jumping off objects is dangerous. Now, this is a valuable idea that certainly has its place but when one is expecting a conversation between environment and body the construct seems forced.
The first half of the program is ‘Transit Space’ which is a commentary on urban space translated through skate ramps. The aforementioned thematic is explore through the interactions with these ramps. There is also a dual text of community. The performers displayed fascinating interrelationships as they negotiated both the environment and each other. As an example of the social commentary, some moves that were made were initially signs of an aggression that emerged from fear and alienation never actually anger. These movements were displayed with bravado as if they were some kind of defence mechanism. This move would be picked up by another performer, and another, and the move was repurposed into a bonding experience as opposed to some kind of cry in the dark. This I get and I thought the ideas here were interesting but they were quickly trivialised by the obvious ‘vox-pop’ soundtrack that made each revelation seem like a motivational infomercial. That element felt like a community workshop and while the thoughts expressed might have been valid to those expressing them the constant string of loud proclamations became a parody of ‘Youth’ (capital Y and scare quotes). Admittedly this was also the section with skateboard ramps and performative hip-hop muzak. Dance with who brungs ya. “You know what we need?” someone never asked, “We need to be relevant to the kids.”
The second work was the exciting ‘Trajectoire’. It involves a platform on a base, using the inverted ramps from act one, that allows the whole platform to move from side-to-side. The order of the works had a brilliant effect where the first work built allegiance with the audience, the performers were all personable, bright, and defiantly utopian. I started to feel connected to them and part of something bigger so in the second act where these people were struggling against the odds and nearly dying there, before my eyes, it was shattering and like waiting for the call that we all dread. The struggle here was tangible. The performers were graceful, as much as they could be, but it was dangerous and being as poised as most of them were in such an unstable environment is exactly the point that the production is making. The thing was that it became too dangerous and uncomfortable to watch. There were mistakes. Normally I wouldn’t be one to point at a fumble on stage, it happens, welcome to live theatre. But, when the fumble could lead to broken bones or worse and when it happens at dramatically inopportune times then it changes the performance from artistic dance to death-defying acrobatics. I’m sure this wasn’t intended and that the falls weren’t planned. If they were then allow me to say on behalf of every audience member that is cruel.
The performance incorporated all elements to create a cohesive production. The lighting throughout the performance was stylised and added to the performance. The first act had wonderfully timed transitions where the lighting shifted from adding to the emotion of the performance to a stark, minimalist industrial lighting design. In the second act the lighting created a tense play of shadows and light as the performers were moving through the struggle on stage. As mentioned, the sound was occasionally intrusive, as for example the awkward and far-too-loud dialogue. At other times what was intended as a tension in the music became over- whelming. But largely, the entire production was an interesting enough night at the theatre although probably not Dance Theatre.