Dance Review: S.O.S. SIGNS OF STRENGTH (DIAVOLO & The Veterans Project at The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on March 19, 2022

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles


To name S.O.S. SIGNS OF STRENGTH just a dance piece is like calling a geode just a rock, since there are many elements that make up the masses of mineral matter secluded within. As with war, there’s hardness on the outside, but there is beauty to be found deep inside. At The Wallis in Beverly Hills last night (and again tonight), DIAVOLO’s moving world premiere taught us that the gems of war can be found in camaraderie, strength, selflessness, and more. Gems can be cut apart, true, but they can also be polished, and the actual vets on stage — men and women — are all in a stage of healing from their experiences in the field.

This is why DIAVOLO is called “Architecture in Motion”: S.O.S. is part movement, part theater, part art, part activism, part healing, part performance piece, and part Terminator-like theme park show (especially with the thrilling — if bombastic — pummeling, patriotic, defiant, electronic march music by Max Richter, Jed Kurzel, and Steve Jablonsky). There is also spoken word text from dramaturg France Nguyen Vincent (including a touching bit from The Little Prince) on a microphone downstage-right, prerecorded stories from the vets themselves, and poems by WWI veteran Siegfried Sassoon.

As part of the The Veterans Project, Director & Choreographer Jacques Heim is fiercely advocating for the healing of war vets, who were enrolled to perform alongside his company of professional movement artists (10 civilians; 8 vets from Army/Navy/Marine Corp). And I use the word “professional” lightly, meaning you can sometimes distinguish the company members with certain flips and leaps, but the vets here are working just as hard with punishing climbs and movement that must be spot-on without causing injury. At one point, long poles which have represented guns are placed in holes on a huge rectangular board (designed by Daniel Wheeler); when turned upright, it looks like a giant Pachinko machine, and becomes — with the aid of Jean-Yves Tessier‘s dramatic spotlight design — part of a battlefield that soldiers must navigate through or perish. Since COVID wreaked havoc on the arts, Heim had to find all-new acrobatic dancers for his company, and honestly his work looks just as great as ever.

This isn’t to say that the powerful and wholly original piece doesn’t feel a bit overlong, and veers dangerously close to a “Be All You Can Be” recruitment ad. The constant movement, along with experiencing reenacted evils of war, is a lot to take in at once, so it made a long piece feel even longer. The show needs to breathe so we can have an emotional experience that hammers home the point of the show — healing; instead it can become repetitious and overblown. There was a silent boy in the cast, perhaps acting as the child of a fallen soldier, which added depth, but not emotion.

The beginning of the program is the always amazing Trajectoire (1999, photo above), which I have seen twice before, but this is hands-down the most thrilling of them all — there were plenty of audible gasps from the sold-out house. Heim’s choreography and Wheeler’s set design work beautifully together, creating a system of controlled chaos in which the dancers use balance, concentration and strength to remain upright atop a large, semi-circular, constantly shifting structure. As I’ve mentioned before, the increasingly dynamic choreography over and around the dangerous space wordlessly conveys a truth best expressed by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”  Dancers embrace the advent of each fall with breathtaking commitment and increasing effort, making terrifying leaps from progressively greater heights, only to land safely in each other’s arms.

And that’s what I took away from this performance — ultimately, don’t we all just want to land safely in each other’s arms?

photos by Lawrence K. Ho

S.O.S. SIGNS OF STRENGTH and Trajectoire
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on March 19, 2022
for more info, visit The Wallis or DIAVOLO


Veteran Performers
Freddie Basnight (US Army, Iraq War Veteran)
Veronica Burgess (US Navy, Iraq War Veteran)
Valentina Cahill (US Army, Iraq War Veteran)
Chris Loverro (US Army, Iraq War Veteran)
Daemion Marcuz (US Marines Corps, Afghanistan War Veteran)
Ejay Menchavez (US Army, Afghanistan War Veteran)
Tess Rutherford (US Marine Corps Veteran)
Anthony Simpson (US Marine Corps, Iraq War Veteran)

Civilian Performers
Kate Dougherty, Caribay Franke, Emily Grable, Simon Greenberg, Steven Jasso, Micah Lagunas, Derion Loman, Abe Meisel, Gabby Pariseau, Juan “Co-eL” Rodriguez

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