Most choreographers consider dancers their artistic medium, but Jacques Heim has always liked to push the edges of his art form. His Los Angeles-based company Diavolo treats human bodies and man-made structures with equal emphasis. Sometimes the dancers become props, while the featured element on stage is a giant wheel, a steel bench, or an oversized staircase riddled with trapdoors.
Such a shift of focus is only possible when the performers have masterful control of both their bodies and the objects they manipulate, and Diavolo’s dancers do. They are gymnasts, martial artists, and athletes, and they bound, slide, leap, and cartwheel like human pinballs through a constantly changing environment where even the slightest miscalculation would result in collision, or worse.
Having first performed in Santa Barbara in 2008, Diavolo was back at the Granada last Friday night with a mixed program of new and old work. The latest was “Fearful Symmetries,” set to the music of contemporary composer John Adams: a driving, at times grinding score for synthesizer and orchestra. It features a giant cube that the dancers, dressed like factory workers, deconstruct into smaller units. There’s a quick progression from tentative exploration to full-blown play, and the performers use grunts and terse cries to keep their timing tight. Often, a block slides into place just in time to catch a leap, or a narrow space slides closed just seconds after someone has slipped through. The teamwork required for such a complex system to function is not unlike the coordination of factory workers on a conveyor belt, but despite the relentless pace, they seem to be having a lot of fun.
Much of the satisfaction in watching Diavolo arises from this sense of controlled chaos: The company is a machine of moving parts—the Swiss watch of the dance world—cogs spinning wildly but never out of sync. What this work isn’t is subtle, and Heim is unapologetic about that. He’s so deep into this experiment, he’s not even sure what he’s got is a dance company. Indeed, when the floor tilts beneath the performers, the result is as much an Escher painting brought to life as it is a dance: the pleasure’s in the very fact that what you’re seeing defies your expectations.