BWW Previews: DIAVOLO Brings A Unique And Breathtaking Spectacle With The Veterans Project At Straz Center For The Performing Arts

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In the traditional sense, dance, and art-forms alike are put on stage to evoke feeling and emotions from the audience. However what happens, when a Professional Company who gained major popularity from their show stopping performances on America's Got Talent, turn the tables on their dancers/artist as well? Through the use of "Architecture in Motion" Diavolo breathes fresh new air into a community that more often than not is overlooked. Through the use of beautiful structures, unique choreography, and other art forms; the touring company of Diavolo combines their strength with that of local area performers and the Veteran's Community to bring a sobering, honest, and heartfelt sense of community to the Straz Center's Carol Morsani Hall on October 25, 2019. After talking with a Veteran, two local Tampa performers, and the Production Manager/Touring Manager for Diavolo... I can tell you this is unlike anything ever seen.

I had time to ask some pertinent questions, and the answers received were enlightening, sobering, and full of hope.

TRACY A MCSORLEY: UNITED STATES AIR FORCE- SERVED AS A MASS SARGEANT- SERVED 27 YEARS- RETIRED FOR 5 1/2 YEARS

How has the experience been working with the company?

The experience has been exhilarating, and inspiration to be working with a group of people again who have a goal and a mission that we are all contributing too, and that we are all putting our best foot forward to get the mission done, Over this 3 week intensive and very immersive period of rehearsals. So it's been a wonderful experience.

How many hours during the day are you spending within this intensive process rehearsing?

6-8 hours a day.

Is it all in this location or have you traveled back and forth?

I'm 50 extra, that's how old I am... so for me I need the warm up to the warm up and a couple of us also do that as well, because of our injuries and our disabilities. So that's what I do, I do an additional 2 hours before I get here, physically and mentally preparing myself so I can be ready for what is going to happen. Then at night we are here between 4:30 and 10:30pm.

How do you push through any disabilities or limitations you might have? How does that work within the confines of the choreography?

What's beautiful about Jacque's process, what's beautiful about Jacque's vision is that we are all human, and we all have capabilities, and we all have different abilities. His philosophy as a production and Artistic Director is getting us to do what we can and when we can for the production. So there are certain movements I can't meet so accommodations have been made in order for me to be a part of the group.

That is awesome

That is one of the beautiful things about working with the Veteran's Project and Diavolo is that they make us all feel included, and giving us a part the best they can with what we've got.

That's awesome I am excited to get a feel for more of the vision and see what's going on with the movement.

So explain to me in short, after you retired, what have you done since you retired, outside the realm of the Air Force which you knew for so long.

I have been retired for 5 ½ years, but because of a medical injury and my disability I have had some additional hospitalizations and surgeries following that and time to recover and get better. So that's pretty much how I spent my medical retirement in January 2014,Ive been reaching and getting my medical issues resolved to a way that I have better functionality, that's how I've spent my time.

Do you reside in the Tampa area?

I have resided in the Tampa area for the last year and a half. My actual residence is in a little town called O'Fallon, Illinois outside of St. Louis, Missouri. I have actually been in the Tampa area since my dad passed away in March of 2018, and I became my mother's primary caregiver whom has dementia, and I was able to transfer my medical history and everything the VA was already treating the St. Louis area to the VA system down here in Tampa, and that is how I found out about the project. The VA in Tampa was advertising it and I was being treated and getting my healthcare provided for in the Tampa VA.

Have you ever had any prior experience with choreography or any outside of this?

Not a single experience whatsoever, I have always appreciated the art, I have always appreciated dance, and theatre, and opera, and even Broadway shows. I have a cousin, several cousins, who are vocalist and perform professionally, but it's never been something that I have had a skill at, and definitely never been a dancer. I have always been physically fit because of my military training. I've always been forced to be relatively physically able, and in spite of my injuries I've kept myself in pretty good condition to be able to do this today.

Do you feel that through this training and intense process, have you outside of already your physical stature, from everything that you've gone through with the Air Force, do you feel like this has strengthened you further, allowed your abilities to grow even more, things of that nature?

I don't know if it's, not so much on the physical side of the house, but I will tell you that spiritually and emotionally being a part of the company and working all together towards a vision, has been really admiring. It's healing to see how so many different people, from so many different backgrounds can come together to accomplish something. Which is something we do all the time in the military; you have people from all walks of life who come into the military whichever service you are in and you all have to work together and no matter what your job is, whether you are a cook or a pilot you can't get your job done without all of you together, and it's a similar thing here, and I found it very healing, and I found it very inspiring to see that. Considering what our outside climate is with the political issues we have going on in the country right now, this is really a wonderful thing to see, that something like this can happen on this level.

So from that standpoint, what is one thing you wish not only as yourself to take away from this, but anybody who is potentially coming to see the show, anybody that may read this, what would you want them to take away from this experience?

All of us need to remember that we are all Human, and that in spite of our differences we are all inter-connected, and we all Bleed Red, and that we all need each other to get ahead!

Beautiful Sentiment, Absolutely, and I thank you for taking time out to talk with us.

AUDREY RICHTER- TAMPA DANCER AND PERFORMER

How has your experience been so far in this 3 week intensive process?

It's been very intense, it's been eye opening, and it's unlike anything I have ever done before. I have been dancing and performing for a very long time. This is just so much more than performance art, it truly is a service to the community and the community of Veterans/ It is helping me understand and empathize just a little bit more with the experience of being a service member in the military. I am getting to know these people so quickly through the movement, whereas, you know you just talk to someone, you kind of ask about their experience. You get a certain sense of understanding, but I feel like this is more visceral and thorough, and understanding that perspective.

How long have you been performing?

I have been performing professionally for 10 years.

So, dancing, or theatre, or all different kinds of performing?

Mostly dance...

Where is your background as far as, what do your skills tend to focus on, do you have one area more so than another?

Sure ya, I was a Ballet dancer trained from age 3 to 18, classical ballet, and then I went to the University of South Florida and shifted focus, continued my ballet studies, but shifted into modern dance, and then as a professional performer I've been focusing mostly on contemporary and modern.

What other, have you performed with other companies outside of Diavolo?

Yes, I was with Collective Souls Dance Company, for 6 years, um, I have done a lot of freelance and gig work.

So other than college has anything else transplanted you down here, or were you a native?

No, I'm from Birmingham, Alabama, and I moved to Tampa to go to USF, and then I stayed in the area.

What has your experience been working with Diavolo. Explain a little bit about, I know Tracy just said you rehearse 6-8 hours a day, sometimes more, explain how that has been for you?

So that has been great, working so intensely for a short amount of time, for longer rehearsal periods has been intense, very physical demanding work, but it's also a lot different from anything I have ever done before because we use structures. In this piece we have 4 main structures and a series of 10ft poles and 21 of them so everything has to be super specific, which makes sense because it can be very dangerous. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the wrong spacing, you could get wacked in the face with a pole, or what have you.

What is one thing that you would like to extend to any readers, anyone who would potentially come to see the performance, and anything that you personally took away from this project, so in essence what would you take away, and what would you wish to extend or hope that someone else would take away?

Through this experience I really realized how much I have to learn about what it means to be a service member and a veteran, and how many more conversations I need to be having with those people, and try to get a better understanding of their lives, their history, and their story. I hope that the audience sees this performance and gets that same sense of curiosity, it's not only curiosity but it's also our duty, we owe so much to these people, and so I hope they feel compelled to reach out to someone who has served and help them, communicate with them, connect with them and get a better understanding of what it means to serve in our military.

Thank you so much for your candor, and I cannot wait to see what's going to unfold.

ANNA-MARIE KNUTSON- TAMPA AREA DANCER AND PERFORMER

So how has the experience been for you, I know it's a 6-8 hour rehearsal period during the day and an intense 3 week period, so explain how the process has been for you?

Well this is the most intense process I've been through just in my dance experience. It has been very refreshing and the most supportive environment I think I have ever been in. I did gymnastics for a long time, which is very supportive and a big team effort, but this has been unlike anything I have experienced. Everyone is so encouraging when you come in through these doors and its very light hearted, but everyone pushes each other to the best of their ability. It's something we need in today's world where we all should be supporting each other and encouraging one another, and it's nice to be in this type of environment for this small amount of time.

How long have you been performing?

I've been performing since the age of 8 I want to say, I started at a small dance studio and it kind of escalated from there. I found out I really loved it, I went to college at USF and was in the dance department there.

Did you grow up in Tampa or are you a transplant here?

No I actually grew up in a small town called Winter Haven, so ya I came to Tampa when I started USF.

How long have you been out of the program over there?

I just graduated this past May.

Awesome, congratulations!

Thank you

Explain to me, I know this is a different project, this is different than anything that's been done or seen especially incorporating the Veterans, involving a professional dance company, you coming in and saying, "Hi, I'm just here auditioning," and then the Veterans, how has it been working in that respect?

It's been very educational, just because I haven't been able to work with Veterans in the way that Jacque works with them and with The Civilians, and incorporating all of our strengths, and we both teach each other a lot. I'm learning a lot from the Veterans and what they've been through, and I think they are learning a lot from The Civilians as well. It's just been really nice because everyone can learn something from everyone and I think this really makes a point of that. It's just been a really good experience to learn from people who have sacrificed so much for this country.

In other words you get to learn on a deeply different level. I was just talking to Audrey and she explained it's much different than talking with someone face to face where there is just a surface connection, you don't really get to feel who the person is, what makes them who they are, and through the movement you have to know someone more for lack of a better word intimately, because you have to connect on that different level in order to experience and fully evolve the machine that is a choreographed movement, so from what she said it's been really cool.

So really quick, because I know they are starting and you have to get out there, what do you want to take away from this experience, and if a reader was to read this or come to see the show, what would you want them to take away from this as well?

I want to take away a deeper sense of community and finding myself in other people, other people who have done so much for me, and I think for the audience they should try to take away how important it is for veterans to go through something like this or just to even watch and experience it because it is so deep and it does help them in more than one way, and it helps civilians as well. So I think just trying to really view it as what it is, and take away everything they can both emotionally and mentally.

Well I thank you for your time and it was great meeting you.

ANNA BROTONS-PRODUCTION COORDINATOR AND TOUR MANAGER, REHEARSAL DIRECTOR FOR VETERANS PROJECT

How has the experience with the company been leading up to America's Got Talent and now after the fact? You guys were on Champions as well, so?

So I'm on the road, and I was dancing at the time of America's Got Talent, I was in the company and performing, and the whole transition of the company has completely shifted after America's Got Talent. It was a huge moment of exposure for our company and our shows, which had been pretty popular prior, but really blew up after America's Got Talent, and we had a wider audience then we ever conceived we would have had. That show really helped push us to the forefront; by doing something different in the dance world and having people being eager to see that in the theatre was really exciting.

How long have you been involved with the company?

I have been in the company this is starting my 7th season now, in the fall. I started off as a dancer in the company and with that four years I slowly transitioned to being Assistant Technical Director for the company and after fortunately a few injuries and natural high impact of this profession that I have chosen I decided to step out and reconstruct my body, I had a few surgeries and have transitioned into Production and Touring Manager for the company. It was a nice transition, every dancer in Diavolo has to know about the structures, how to build them, how to break them down, we don't have a crew back at home, so the dancers as much as they are involved in choreography and creation, they are involved in building, and breaking down, and knowing how it goes in the truck.

Now that's cool...

It makes you become a well-rounded performer and artist in a way, so for me it was a really cool transition to learn something new off-stage, but I'm still totally a part of what I love to be a part of and a part of this company which I really enjoy.

Explain to me the Vision behind the Veteran's Project?

It's so different than anything we've ever done, and it started three years ago. As much as it's different than what we've done; when we started this program we found that our Diavolo culture and the Military culture as vastly bipolar different they are had so many commonalities. We had so many things that aligned with the idea of structure, with the idea of teamwork, with the idea of discipline, and rigor, self-sacrifice; one for obviously the country and each other, and in our arts world for the arts, for dance, and for what we believe in and what we stand for. So as we started to work with the Veteran community we were like you know what these Vets' relate to having someone push them and try to make them a better version of themselves, which is what Jacque is, Jacque becomes their commander, and that is how he has always been with our company. He's hard on the company, he's tough on the company, he is a drill sergeant with his dancers, so it was a natural transition for him to now command a group of Veterans who are also curious in movement and curious in rehabilitating themselves, and not knowing that artistically there's a way we can do that together in a community with civilians as well. I think that a big part of the project was not just working with Vets' but dancers, like the Diavolo dancers who never had any experience with veterans or military in any form, now get to share in a community where they feel safe because they are movers, and they are doing what they love and can connect with and sharing that with veterans which have their own stories to tell. It was just a very seamless and beautiful connection that we made three years ago and now we keep continuing to pursue it.

Awesome, so it's healing basically all around, it's healing for performers, its healing for the veterans, not just in a physical way, but also in an emotional way as well. Like I was talking to Audrey she said a lot of this has been very healing for her because outside of this she has never really had any experience with veterans, not only that but you learn a lot more about a person, I mean you learn enough just through basic conversation, but it's only skimming the surface. With an art form such as this where you are so interconnected, you have to be that much more intimate with a person, so you get learn more about who they are and where they come from on an emotional level.

Absolutely one of the foundations Diavolo is built upon is trust, and it's such a basic human instinct and a human thing that some people really have an easy time doing, and some people don't, and with the veteran community and our work that was the biggest piece; finding trust within themselves number one, to trust themselves to challenge themselves to do this kind of work and to do this movement and to trust other people, and literally to put their lives and put themselves in danger (safely) but in dangerous situations with these structures and all these different things coming at them and they find purpose and they find healing and they find happiness, and it's been on both sides. We didn't know that, we didn't know what we were doing, and Jacque would say all the time that he didn't know how to interact with veterans, and how to talk to them, what to say, what to do and he thought to himself and thought I'm just going to treat them like how I treat my dancers; I am going to treat them like humans, because we are all just humans ultimately at the end of the day. That sometimes is the disconnect people think that veterans are this other type of person, but it's like no they are just human, I mean they've been through something and sometimes all they really need is to just connect. That's it; not necessarily for you to know them or understand them, but for you to accept the fact that they are another human on this planet and they just want to be seen and heard and connected with, so that's the mission.

I think a lot of it is because people get overlooked because of disabilities or limitations, and especially in the arts community we are finding more and more that it is changing. Especially with Ali Stroker winning the Tony Award for her performance in Oklahoma, I mean she was the first disabled, I'm not sure how to say that the right way...

We all learned this week that disabled is the appropriate term...

Absolutely. It is just so awesome to see not only how the arts world is changing, but how the world entirely is changing and it needs to be more about acceptance, love, and inclusiveness. Like I was just telling Audrey I just directed show and I had a cast member whom has a physical limitation, and I've seen shows where she has been Tree number 3 off to the side and basically was stationary for the show and I thought that is not going to work for me. I incorporated a ramp into my set design and she used every single inch of the stage like you and I would..

Ya...

Just to see her eyes light up, and the passion she regained about herself and her self-awareness and who she is as a person, not only that but the audience introspective coming back to me after the performance and saying that is a reason why she was in the show. Those performers need to be able to use as much of the space, and feel as much a part of the situation and the moment, otherwise why are they there. No human at all should be overlooked for any reason, and I think the ability to be so inclusive is making that experience much more enriching not only for the performers but for the audience as well.

Absolutely, and that is what we have found too. This project has since changed the narrative of our company, it's also changed the mission that we have and what we want to do, and to continue to pursue this work but ultimately what we know is successful is the fact that it changes the people that watch the work, and that's why we continue to do the work. We continue to do this on such a grand setting to put on the best projects, or performance that we can, because ultimately when it looks good and when the veterans and The Civilians are portrayed in this beautiful, organic, and real life the audience really gets to take away, most of the time they can't tell on stage who are the veterans and who are The Civilians, and that idea is exactly what we are trying to go for. The idea of that it shouldn't matter we are all human we are all the same, and it doesn't matter if you can tell the two apart the point is that you can't. It's a beautiful work of art that you happen to feel and emote with and that is what the take away should be, not that this is that person, and that is this person, and the more we do it the bigger we try to make it, and the more dangerous, and the more exciting, the more the take away seems grander and that is what it's about. It's about the audience also learning whether there are veterans in the audience or civilians alike this is a community of people and humans coming together to share their experience and their stories and hopefully they can learn something from it.

Absolutely, I was listening to your meeting prior to this, and Jacque said something that struck me actually, he said, "You have the videos, you have the research, you have the background of what is going on on-stage, and that moment where you're in the restroom, what are you doing? Are you on Facebook, or whatever, or are you watching the videos... are you going to be that person?"

I think so many people take certain things like that for granted, and they don't do the research and they wonder why they are falling behind, and it's so inspiring to see that he pushes everyone because he wants everyone to be that like-minded and that same, and the only way to do that is to do the research.

That is his language he is very specific, and very intentional with his words and that is why he is the driving force of these programs and this project because he leads and commands in a way that demands respect and self-respect too. So it's are you going to show up for each other, do you want to be that person that leaves somebody behind, or drops somebody or isn't present or isn't focused; and the rest of the team is going to suffer, and the product isn't going to be the same. As much as the product is important, the process is too, and they are all learning how to commit and how to do the homework. As a dancer they have gotten that, they are trained in muscle memory, and how to remember things, but it's a totally new experience for a veteran. I mean they can watch videos, but how do you watch videos, how do you actually connect with what you are watching, and remember how do you put that back into your body, so Jacque is trying to instill how to be self-aware enough and confident enough in your own abilities to master this, and master a task. He's given them a mission, and that is how their mind works a lot of the time is mission focused, so their mission and their task is this performance and this project. So the goal is not to let each other down and ultimately not let themselves down.

What is one final take away for yourself and the audience that you wish people reading this or seeing the performance walk away with?

I want this experience for anybody and this is what I took away when I first started, I want to inspire curiosity and conversation for anybody who sets eyes on it about, what it means to be a veteran and can you in some way of your life connect with a veteran? Even if it's on a literal scale from family, or friends you may know, or finding a way to reach out and connect with the veteran community. I feel like it's a very underserved community in this country, and I feel like they do sacrifice so much and we don't, and I never did know and I never had an interest in knowing, so if I can just inspire the interest in people to be curious about what it means to serve, what it means for the people and their families that serve, because it really affects so many millions of people in this country and our society is very detached from that unlike a lot of other societies, so this project has inspired me to do more research and be more socially aware and culturally aware. So if I can engage anyone to think that way or at least google it when they get home and see if they can support something like this, or to get interested in the arts in some way then I think we have done our job.

Final question... for those who know of Diavolo know you guys use structures in your shows, how is this without giving anything away, how is this different than anything done before.

So it's different in regards to the community involved. Not different in the Diavolo aesthetic, if anything we are really trying to hon in on the aesthetic of using structures, we still have them. Typically in shows with veterans before we would only use one structure. In this project we are trying to use five different structures, we are trying to include other artistic elements such as singing, and tap dance, things you wouldn't necessarily expect from Diavolo. We are trying to blend specifically what this community offers, what the Straz offers, and we have a beautiful partnership with an incredible singing artist who will be singing poetry. We tried to find a way to embrace all art forms with the essence of Diavolo as well.

How many other areas has the Veterans Project been done?

So far it's been done three times. Once in Los Angeles, once in Kansas with Kansas State University, and this is our third round with the Straz in Tampa.

You typically partner with an area University?

Typically yes, because that has been the most successful with grants and making the project happen, but we are open to any other Veteran Communities that wish to embrace this project.

Thank you so much for your time!

Stately spoke, beautifully delivered, reverently minded and filled with hope.

As beautiful candor, hope, and heart fill the void much needed in all of our lives, I bid adieu to the beautiful souls that encompass Diavolo and all involved with the Veterans Project. I look forward to seeing more from them in the coming months as they prepare to take Carol Morsani Hall by storm on October 25, 2019 for the display of the Veterans Project. You can find out more about the performance and purchase tickets by visiting www.strazcenter.org.You can further find out more about Diavolo and their astute awareness to all that encompasses the Veterans project, and find information on getting involved by visiting www.diavolo.org

Photo credit: The Straz Center



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From This Author Drew Eberhard