When Jacques Heim, founder/choreographer/director of Diavolo Dance Theater and one of the most consistently engaging of Los Angeles creative talents, launched The Veterans Project in 2016, hearing of it, I thought of it as an ambitious and laudable community outreach program. Partnering with the “V.A.,” the Veterans Administration, Heim and his dancers have led hundreds of U.S. military veterans through “therapeutic and creative” workshops. Activating their work is Diavolo’s proprietary blend of teamwork and high-flying acrobatics, often, harrowingly, in tandem with unforgiving stage props. The workshops aim to tease out issues that confound, even plague, veterans. It struck me as a worthy cause.
But it had nothing to do with me.
That was then. Fast-forward to Saturday evening at Diavolo’s deep bat-cave of a dance studio at The Brewery. There I attended a showcase performance of S.O.S., Signs of Strength the latest theatrical manifestation of The Veterans Project (there have been several, including one at The Soraya). I found myself having a very different reaction. The twenty-member troupe—muscular-and-tattooed former military men and women (“Veterans”) mixed in with Heim’s stalwart Diavolo dancers (“Civilians”)—put an unremitting pedal to the metal. The high-caliber acrobatics, interwoven with voiced testimonials evincing human vulnerability, courage, and sensitivity, moved me to the point that I cried. The way that S.O.S. integrated intense physicality with tales of genuine valor triggered my tears.
Explosive, disturbing, and even scary, was the vision of bodies detonating in tumbling, prop-climbing, platform-jumping and thrown round like bean bags. Then, in close coordination, the troupe formed tableaux. One had them wielding long silver pipes as guns as they prowling the stage; in another, they dragged the wounded to safety. These pictorials of the human body under stress, inches from tragedy, took me to the jungle, to the desert, to a desolate high mountain. It took me far away and yet, it hit so close to home. For the underpinning of this performance—the yearning for connection, involvement, dedication to country and community—is something universal. We’re all looking for that. And S.O.S., Signs of Strength strikes that chord.
S.O.S. was booked for performances at the Joyce Theater in New York, but, in a huge disappointment, the show was cancelled due to a bug that’s been going around. Throughout its making, Heim’s devotion to the Veterans and his validation of their experience has been steadfast. He has said that this project changed his life, and gave him new purpose. The folk Heim has cajoled, trained, buddied-up with are having post-military experiences ranging from the benign — missing the camaraderie — to the severe, PTSD.
A pony-tailed French guy dressed in signature all-black fashion, Heim more resembles a nightclub impresario than a drill sergeant as he barks out commands. “ARE YOU READY?,” he bellows. His fearsome energy caused his dancers to call him “General Jacques,” or, in a way guaranteed to drive any Frenchman crazy, they nicknamed him “Napoleon.”
Did Napoleon order troupes to slide down a tilted platform, feet reaching and seeking pegs as resting points, accruing bumps and bruises, only to scamper back up again in defiance of gravity and ‘rinse, repeat’? To operate in chaos? To remain rational amidst the maddening noise of a helicopter taking off? Did Napoleon’s soldiers fly through space, and catch one another? Did they enunciate the extreme thoughts careening in their heads, like, “I haven’t done enough,” or “Send me,” or “I would go back in a heartbeat,” or “These people would die for me and I would die for them.” The post-trauma mantra, “I’m not over it, I’m getting over it, I want to be over it, I’ll never get over it” forms the Greek chorus of S.O.S., Signs of Strength.
It used to be “them” and “us.” Now it is “all of us.” We all need to show signs of strength, in even the smallest of ways. The time has arrived for S.O.S., Signs of Strength—at least for this life veteran.
The Veterans Project | Diavolo | The Wallis | Mar 18, 19
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.
Reading this exquisitely written account of your experience made me long for live performance. Thank you for sharing so eloquently.