On Friday, July 31, 2020, DIAVOLO/Architecture in Motion, led by the brilliant and fearless Director/Choreographer, Jacques Heim, returned virtually to Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts with, “This is Me: Letters From the Front Lines” airing on Facebook and YouTube, at 4:00pm for its fourth engagement with the Soraya, generously funded by Kathleen P. Martin.
Prior to DIAVOLO’S highly successful 2017 premiere of The Veterans Project, originated by Jacques Heim, 500 L.A. Veterans participated in workshops with the DIAVOLO Company of dancers and choreographers. The workshop was a departure which required an outreach to War Veterans coming together to tell their personal stories in words, movement and music. This involved bravery, challenge, and teamwork working with their fellow warriors. And out of the time spent in and out of the studio, the work evolved into two new pieces, “Ibuku” and “A Long Journey Home” which proved a moving and healing experience, not only for the Veterans and dancers, but the audience at the Soraya, and becoming part of the celebration of DIAVOLO’s 25th Anniversary.
Out of the new trajectory into the Veterans Project, the Company’s expansion and recognition broadened, along with their reputation and repertoire into a worldwide recognized company. They were honored as one of the top 10 contestants on the hit series “America’s Got Talent” and became distinguished for their brilliant, death defying, and inspirational work.
Then came March 2020 when Covid-19 hit, closing down nearly everything; schools, businesses, live art, entertainment and life as we knew it. The sudden changes and convulsions threatened not only the lives and livelihoods of so many but increased the incredible pressure and burden on our First Responders, whose courage and persistence in helping save lives was nothing less than heroic. And from the sidelines, in this environment, artists found themselves shut down and in turmoil, unable to see a future before them.
Then under the leadership and creative insights of Thor Steingraber, Executive Director of the Soraya, came his commitment to continue to make art relevant. Reaching out to the community beyond this seismic shift, he began to look for new ways to continue supporting the arts and artists, and finding audacious ways to deliver new works, and creative approaches to vintage pieces, in spite of the peril.
At that point, he contacted DIAVOLO’s innovative Founder and Artistic Director, Jacques Heim early in the pandemic to find a way to work together to produce something meaningful. It took some weeks of reflection and brain-storming on Zoom and it became clear to Heim and Steingraber that an expansion of the Veterans Project pairing Warriors of our now “Invisible War” (the First Responders), with our Warriors of the decisive Wars (those with guns, tanks and bombs) would be vital. Heim admits, that clearly, “what we do in DIAVOLO is restoration. Restoring mental, emotional and physical strength. The Warriors need this kind of restoration to deal with everyday life. It’s Aspirational!” They realized that the community of mankind needed this restoration also. They agreed it was a big idea, however this chamber piece became incredibly personal and relevant.
Steingraber acknowledges this is a personal piece that could not necessarily be done on stage and get the same impact that it has on film. Heim agreed that we can use this opportunity to re-purpose art in another way. And so, they did in “THIS IS ME, Letters From the Front Lines”.
When the credits appear, white on black, it reads: “This is Me: Letters from the Front Lines” with a disclaimer below the words which lets the audience know the dancers were quarantined together prior and through the duration of the project, with CDC guidelines adhered to by all who were involved.
In so many ways, this is no ordinary performance. It was done with the threat of a Pandemic, with many restrictions and pitfalls on the freedom and abandon of art itself.
The film begins with the cutting sounds of war; helicopters, radio chatter, the camera pans in on a small house in a suburban neighborhood, the door swings opens and we move into a bedroom with a resting woman, in muted green fatigues. France Nguyen-Vincent, the writer, the performer speaks, “Lately,” she says, as if just waking from a long sleep, her words shape not only her mood but the exposition of the piece – “this is not the me I know… I have been blindsided.”
We are then taken on a riveting 45 minute journey through the lives of seven Warriors; 4 Veterans, one RN, an EMT and Doctor, in a unrecognizable space, which becomes populated by humanity, people in masks…dancers, crew, cameramen, all in greys, greens, muted browns, off whites, sets of stylized life-sized grey and red boxes with mock doorways, dowels fashioned in designs to represent barriers, or nests, or weapons. The original music by composers Robert Allaire, Bruno Louchouarn, and Jean-Pierre Bedoyan haunts the cacophony of movement in the space.
We get lost, humans moving past each other, then focus goes to U.S Army Combat Medic, Tyler Grayson’s powerful body in his green work shirt and mauve work pants, dark hair asymmetrically cut. He occupies the screen, with effort, placing and replacing large heavy crates … clearly his story of pain and disconnection is compelling with his bridge from “Warrior to Healer.”
Then a kind of filmic wipe of dancers invading and filling the territory with powerful movements, climbing, falling, rolling around the structures, masked, and quickening strategically as Grayson hides, pushes himself through the boxes, he explains, and clarifies his thoughts about the virus. The dancers, like a Greek Chorus, embellish his words. They’re leaping, evading, and rolling over each other. The smoke-filled space expertly shot and edited by Aaron Mendez, with Jean Yves Tessler’s piercing lighting cutting through the darkness to create an ominous and incomprehensible future.
We are then introduced to Marella Keating, a Front Line RN at Providence St. Joseph’s Hospital, perched on a never ending wheel rising and falling. She cares for the “critically ill, people on life support, on ventilators… I help the person breathe…I do see myself as a warrior…we literally do suit up …not knowing the repercussions of this disease….at night it’s hard to fall asleep. I’m so overwhelmed at the end of the day, and I’m afraid to sleep.” Her calm agony continues, “I don’t consider myself a hero.” Finally, her sage prophecy…”We will get through this.”
Lucas Haas, EMT climbs against structured pipes – flying from one bar to another flipping and then dragging a body from the center of the structure. Driving, rhythmic, the group enters flips and swings over the bars. “Being on the front lines it feels like I was meant to be here,” as he drags a body away from the structure.
“The pandemic only motivated me to work hard for others. In tandem with the slashing sounds, he swings into view. “Since I’ve been a kid I always jumped forward to help others…What bares the heaviest on my mind aren’t the injuries that I see, but the flaws and injustices in the Medical system. I don’t consider myself a hero.”
Chris Loverro, U.S. Army Civil affairs officer, now founder of Warriors for Peace Theatre. He served in Mosul, Iraq… volunteered to go to Afghanistan after seeing the “Twin Towers” fall. He returned home with acute PTSD, nearly taking his own life. He has struggled to find his center, but is driven to do something… The sounds of Guns and yelling as he climbs through smoke and spikes, washed in red ambient light . “Despite being a police officer, I never felt like I had more purpose.”
And on it goes, as in their words, they express some of the most moving, honest and insightful thoughts about their own experiences: Shannon Corbeil, U.S. Air Force Captain, cyber space analyst, Flight commander, military veteran. La’Vel Stacy, U.S. Navy culinary specialist. And finally, Dr. Sasan Najibi, MD – Board Certified General and Vascular Surgeon on the Front Lines and committed to honoring the patient’s individual dignity.
All of these insights are powerfully supported by the incredible cast of dancers and co-choreographers: BethanyRose Boutwell, Kate Dougherty, Daniel Jacob Glenn, Steven Jasso, Derion Loman, Majella Loughran, Amanda MacLeod, Abraham Meisel, Lex Shimko, Evan Turner, and finally, Safety Coordinator, performer and co-choreographer, Matthew Wagner.
The crew of designers, camera and technical artists, producers, photographers, all made this not only a labor of love, but an important statement of our times. Important in its insights, it creates hope, not only during the Pandemic, but beyond. It is worthy of support, as are the Soraya and DIAVOLO that have helped develop and conceive the making of this important, inventive and beautiful piece.
Written by Joanne DeVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
To watch This Is Me: Letters from the Front lines, click HERE. There is a pause before it begins.
To visit the DIAVOLO/Architecture in Motion website, click HERE.
For more information about The Soraya Nazarian Center, click HERE.
Featured image: DIAVOLO – “This Is Me: Letter From the Front Lines” – France Nguyen Vincent (center) and dancers – Photo by George Simian