Dance Fever

Improbably, given the geography and the general cultural malaise of the Valley, a grand finale of world-class quality closes National Dance Week here. Since the week began on April 21, presenters from Tempe to central Phoenix offered audiences dance by leading American choreographers -- Sean Curran, Moses Pendleton and Kevin O'Day, to name a few. The danztravaganza continues through this weekend with Ballet Arizona at the Herberger, New York's H.T. Chen and Dancers at Gammage, and the Los Angeles troupe Diavolo at Scottsdale Center for the arts.

You could catch them all by driving out Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but if your gas tank allows for only one event, make it Diavolo on Friday night. Not pure dance, this is dance theater derived from drama, mime, surrealist art, circus, gymnastics and whatever else artistic director Jacques Heim thinks works.

"I used to do traditional modern dance movement, very awkward. Now what concerns me is movement for people who think they don't like dance," said Heim, speaking from his L.A. studio. He founded the troupe of 10 dancers there in 1992. He's been holding his own in a tough town, as this month's Dance Magazine contends, for dance: "People are forced to travel vast distances for recreation or artistic entertainment." Sounds just like home.

A transplanted Parisian, Heim first came to the United States to study theater. At Vermont's Middlebury College, he began to marry his early interest in theater to dance, later taking his MFA at California Institute of the Arts. "I was not designed to be a dancer, but when it became clear that I would not do Shakespeare well with my French accent, I took ballet and modern," he said. He studied with some of the best -- Steve Paxton and David Gordon, both grounded in dance theater -- and went on to study contact improvisation technique. But the gymnastic aspects of his work come strictly from his dancers, who have gymnast backgrounds. "When, sometimes, they show me this, I make a mixture of that kind of movement with modern and improv."

He mixes familiar, quotidian movements such as running, jumping, falling -- things people see, do, and easily recognize. "But," he says, "Diavolo recontextualizes the latent absurdities of contemporary life through the body."

The French have a term for that phenomenon where you forget what you went upstairs for only to remember on the way back down -- esprit d'escalier. Heim took this everyday occurrence and turned it into Tete en l'Air -- head in the air, a French idiom for forgetful. It took top honors at Scotland's Edinburgh Festival in 1995 and helped Diavolo garner three Lester Horton awards.

Tete en l'Air, one of the repertory pieces Heim will present Friday night, looks like a Magritte painting that's come to life. Strangely dressed dancers perform implausible events on, in and around an oversize staircase. In many of Heim's dances, props of exaggerated proportions offer the necessary scale on which the dancers operate. They climb up, over and through large, free-standing doors. In Detour, they hurtle their bodies over a giant metal peg-board. And, in what appears to be a gigantic sewer pipe in Manmade, a dancer assumes the position of a crucifixion or Leonardo's anatomical drawing. The rhythmic clanking soundscape by Jean-Pierre Bedoyan ritualizes the work.

The second half of the program will feature a major component of a larger work, Catapult: La Comedie Humaine. Called Trajectoire, its core is a 12-by-14-foot construction, five feet above the stage floor, that looks like a small section of a wooden boat. The dancers rock it.

The year before he founded Diavolo, Heim was honored in a competition in Japan, a country of dance connoisseurs that still treats dancers like rock stars. "Years ago dance was an event -- big, like a rock concert. So if I can find a way to bring a different kind of audience to dance, I am happy." This weekend make a choreographer happy. Let dance rock your world.

Diavolo performs at 8 p.m. Friday, April 28, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street. Tickets are $26. For details call 480-994-2787 (SCA) or 480-784-4444 (Ticketmaster).

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Merilyn Jackson

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