REVIEW: A well-heeded call for community: DIAVOLO’s ‘Existencia’

Architecture & Design · Dance · Music · Reviews

We all knew why we were there. We were there to remember and commemorate — most of us having lived through it. We were there to ruminate, and then, to thank our lucky stars. For, in the ashes of the January 17, 1994 Northridge Earthquake, a 6.7-magnitude tumbler that overturned the campus of Cal State University Northridge, one unintended consequence was the jewel-box, glass-encased theater in which we sat.

In marking the quake’s 30th anniversary, The Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts provided “Existencia“‘s perfect setting. The seventy-minute-long “Existencia,” with sophisticated interplay between dance, music, and oversized theatrical props in a complex, multi-chapter spectacle made for an engaging and artful performance. Jacques Heim, the longtime creative director of the Los Angeles-based DIAVOLO dance troupe, led two audiences (one on the anniversary evening, January 17, the other, two nights later) in his manifestation of Soraya Executive and Artistic Director Thor Steingraber‘s relatively open-ended brief to mark the anniversary in a Diavolish way.

“Existencia” was an eyeful. Heim’s perpetual-motion mashup of hip-hop/modern dance/acrobatics was executed by his super-fit crew of dancers, risking their necks to embody life on the brink of disaster, in the midst of disaster, and in disaster recovery.

“Existencia” gives new meaning to the term terra firma, as these daring-doers leave solid ground to tumble around a metal cage like a bolt come loose; jump off precipices into waiting arms; fall into a vast pit that we pray portends a soft landing; hang like monkeys from poles; climb onto the backs of others while being carried to safety; fly through space tethered to a rope, high-fiving a second aerialist whizzing by. In a nice respite from this sweaty stuff, a guest artist, Bandaloop’s Amelia Rudolph swoops in an aerial ballet that allows us to enjoy her elegant form as she skims and circumscribes the stage, flitting on it on her tippy toes.

“Existencia” was also an earful. The Soraya’s magical touch was its commissioning of a new score to be performed live by the Barcelona-based jazz couple, drummer Antonio Sanchez and vocalist Thana Alexa, whose multifarious, resonating music propelled Heim’s earth-rattling scheme. The two musicans, situated at opposite ends of the stage, delivered a score written by email, Zoom calls, and film clips. It lay a groundswell of sound that so cushioned the action that ten minutes into “Existencia,” the music was inextricable from the choreography.

Who knew? For example, who knew that percussion, beyond bringing the beat, could send off melody and harmony? And that the purity of Alexa’s tone, nearly angelic at times, by use of looping could be bumped up to sound like choral music? Rarely did contemporary music and dance so thrillingly synergize in real time.

“Existencia” assembled these elements, using corners of The Soraya stage that the stage didn’t know it had. Alas, the evening had shortfalls. Both the show’s opening and its closure call for pruning. The very dated, corny emcees trawling the house to interview audience members about their various traumas would not be missed. All of the on-stage “welcome” shtick is not “welcome” by many audience members. .Those two actions put “Existencia” into arrears before it even started, like a self-inflicted wound. The big long coda that seems to have three finishing points: Tighten! Schmaltz and sentimentality would enjoy more control. The final quote projected onto a curtain should not be necessary if the art has done its job.

The best evidence of “Existencia”‘s success came not in the theater but in The Soraya lobby after the show. A fun Q & A with Heim and his creative collaborators attracted a good portion of audience members. Behind them, gabbing and shmoozing, creating a nonstop din, were scads of others, people who simply seemed loathe to leave the theater. It brought a mighty noise, a vibrant rumble so sweet compared to the infinitely more destructive one preceding it by thirty years.

photo credit: luis luque, luque photography

Dance critic Debra Levine who previously wrote feature articles about “Existencia” on behalf of The Soraya, is pleased to share her reaction to the unique showcase here.

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