On January 17th, 1994, Northridge, California was hit by an early morning 6.7 earthquake. Much of the area was devastated and sadly too many people died. Northridge College was damaged extensively but with intrepid determination the college forged ahead erecting tents and bringing in trailers with the intent of reopening as soon as possible. Remarkably the school resumed within four short weeks in a testimony to resilience. For the 30th Anniversary of this disaster Thor Steingraber, Artistic and Executive Producer for The Soraya Theater, teamed with Jacques Heim, Creative Director and Choreographer of DIAVOLO to create a new work in remembrance of that fateful event.

Thus, thirty years later, on a cool Friday night, I went with a few friends to The Soraya to see “EXISTENCIA” the newest work from DIAVOLO/Architecture in Motion, Heim’s remarkable company. Heim was tasked with creating a work that addressed the particulars of that day and its aftermath. To do this he brought in several collaborators each with their own impressive background and specialized abilities. Original music was composed and performed by Thana Alexa and multiple Grammy winning drummer, Antonio Sánchez. Associate Creative Director and Choreographer, Jim Vincent, was joined by his wife Dramaturg, France Nguyen Vincent. Aerial Choreographer, Amelia Rudolph of BANDALOOP, brought flying to the stage and DIAVOLO’S own in-house choreographer Leandro Glory Damasco Jr. joined this accomplished group. With artists of this caliber the anticipation was high for a night of great theater.

Diavolo’s “Existencia” - Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

Diavolo’s “Existencia” – Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

Alas, this was not the case. Jacques Heim introduced the piece and had some fun with the audience with his irrepressible spirit but this interaction hijacked the anticipation of the spectacle to come. Just as we had finally settled back ready for action, two people with microphones began asking the audience members to share their “Quake” stories. Most people did not want to participate and those who did brought nothing new to the table and were hard to hear over the ambient sound design that had begun. After what felt like too long, the beautiful “city scaped” curtain rose to reveal a series of tall metal buildings made of scaffolding, a “city-scape” that mirrored the curtain. This movable “jungle gym” apparatus designed by Adam Davis, allowed the performers to climb up and over the bars and through the spaces. Downstage center another large scaffold square held a lone female dancer trapped inside. After a too long solo accompanied by music that supported but never enhanced the stage action, the cast came to her rescue. It seemed that this intro would give way to what Diavolo does best, gravity defying tricks, tremendous acrobatics and dare devil flights of fancy. And while it is true that there were many tricks requiring split-second timing, we the audience never knew where to look. Perhaps in trying to emulate the chaos created by a major earthquake the stage became overly busy and perspective was lost. This lack was a constant problem throughout the show. Credit must be given, however, to the fearless and fully committed company performers.

Diavolo’s “Existencia” - Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

Diavolo’s “Existencia” – Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

Unusually for DIAVOLO much time was committed to dance as opposed to apparatus driven movement. This cast can all dance but it is not their forte and the choreography lacked innovation, too much reaching, dropping and general angst movement became repetitive. Also repetitive was the constant moving of the apparatus from point to point all of which must be very precise but led nowhere. New pictures were created only to be instantly moved again and again, and the much-anticipated high-wire acrobatics never materialized.

Antonio Sánchez performing in "Existencia" - Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

Antonio Sánchez performing in “Existencia” – Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

BANDALOOP is known for astonishing flying work most often twenty stories up off the sides of high-rises. When the flying was incorporated here, the most interesting aspect was being able to watch the riggers and counterweight handlers do their work by situating them in the aisle of the theater or just off stage on tall ladders. Working within a proscenium left little room for what BANDALOOP does best so the flying though lovely was less than spectacular.

Diavolo - Amelia Rudolph performing "Existencia" - Photo Luis Luque, Luque Photography

Diavolo – Amelia Rudolph performing “Existencia” – Photo Luis Luque, Luque Photography

Overly busy, a lack of focus and too many ideas gave one the sense that this team was trying to cram in too much, too much of the time. However, this did not preclude some lovely and exciting moments from emerging throughout. For example, a flyer ascending to heaven, into the flies and out of the sight of his grieving colleagues, was as beautiful as it was moving. Perhaps one solid point of view, one guiding light was needed. That light should be Jacques Heim who has created staggering works of art in the past.

Diavolo's "Existencia" - Photo Luis Luque, Luque Photography

Diavolo’s “Existencia” – Photo Luis Luque, Luque Photography.

DIAVOLO has set their own bar in the stratosphere, so living up to this high standard may not happen every time. However, I have faith that whatever they do next will bring them back better than ever and I plan to be there.

The terrific Performers/Choreographers were; Evan Beek, Jared Bogart, Chris Borrero, Alexa Donnelly, Paulina Donnelly, Kate Dougherty, Aaron Franco, Caribay Franke, Emily Grable, Simon Greenberg, Kazuma Inoue, Steven Jasso, Liana Kulchin, Jarel Lewis, Daemion Macruz, Mia Moraru, Oscar Ramos, Juan “Co-eL” Rodriquez, Ryan Ruiz, Connor Senning and Jarrett Yeary.

Effective Lighting Design was by Jean-Yves Tessier with Sound Effects, Video and Graphic Design by Simon Greenberg. Basic Costumes were designed by David Touster.

To learn more about Diavolo – Architecture in Motion, please visit their website.

To read more about the 2023/2024 season at The Soraya, please visit their website.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Diavolo’s “Existencia” – Photo by Luis Luque, Luque Photography.