It's an understatement to say extreme adversity changes people, but words often fail to fully describe the impact of earth-shattering events. "Heaven," a dance/theater piece directed by Joe Chvala of Flying Foot Forum, uses movement, music and story to convey the horrors of the 1990s Bosnian war.

The work is a compelling study of hope in the face of inhumanity but it is also so jam-packed with historic, cultural and literary references that sometimes the poignancy of individual experience is lost. Still, "Heaven" is recommended for its fearless exploration of the relationships forged quickly when people are thrust into crisis. It juggles tragedy, humor and irony in a manner that makes perfect sense for a world turned upside-down.

Audiences entering the Guthrie's Dowling Studio are transported to a neighborhood bar where the extraordinary Natalie Nowytski serenades the crowd. Chvala leads the large swirling multigenerational and multilingual cast in singing "All are welcome!" but such sentiments sting given the looming conflict. Scuffles soon break out.

"Heaven" focuses on Peter Adamson (Doug Scholz-Carlson), a photojournalist from Chicago ready to leave Bosnia because he feels his pictures are not spurring the world to action. He meets a Bosnian soldier, Faruk (the eloquently stern Eric Webster), who tricks Peter into accompanying him from Sarajevo into the countryside to find his wife. The journey changes their lives in ways neither could imagine.

Scholz-Carlson's Peter is spot-on as a quintessential American who is psychically upended when his self-idealized role as caring observer is challenged by war's harsh reality. Interestingly, this realization comes courtesy of both his resourceful Bosnian love interest Lejla (Laurel Armstrong) and a merciless Serb commander (Steve Sweere).

Chvala infuses "Heaven" with raw and vigorous dancing that reflects the tumult. The performers circle and toss one another while percussive rhythms propel with the aggression of gunfire. The haunting music and lyrics by Chan Poling (with additional contributions by Peter O'Gorman, Victor Zupanc, Nowytski and Chvala) draw on Balkan influences, as well as opera, pop and rap, to evoke the bleak poetry of wartime.

There are painfully beautiful moments within the songs, particularly as citizens-turned-refugees wonder, "What would you pack if this happened to you?" It's a question that gives pause, especially for those fortunate enough to know war only from afar.

Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.