Wednesday, January 29, 2014

PuSh 2014: Usually Beauty Fails

I have a new dance crush. The fact that he also plays in a rock band only adds to his allure.

Dancer, choreographer, guitarist, singer, and conceptual raconteur Frédérick Gravel has brought his fist-pumping, foot-stomping multi-media pop extravaganza Usually Beauty Fails to the Fei and Milton Wong Theatre at SFU Woodward's as part of the PuSh Festival for three nights, in a co-presentation with DanceHouse and 149 Arts Society. Raw and intense, much like an underground rave let loose on a proscenium stage, the work is also punctuated by quieter moments that are at times achingly tender and, yes, very beautiful.

As audience members file to their seats, we hear a driving, though muffled bass beat. Two musicians fiddle with computers and mixers upstage. Meanwhile, the dancers (three women and three men, including Gravel) finish their warm-ups and begin massing together in a group downstage left. They start silently nodding and swaying to the music, all the while staring out at the audience--the cool club kids come to challenge all of us sedentary wallflowers. Uh-oh, I first thought--it's Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On all over again. But then the house lights go down and the music gets turned up and the dancers start shooting their bodies backwards, arms flying out horizontally, legs breaking at the knee as they drop first one limb and then another to the floor, just barely avoiding a pile-up of bodies upstage before marching purposefully downstage to start their backwards trajectories all over again. The sequence is then repeated stage right, almost like a kind of reverse moshing.

After this high-energy opening, the first of many surprises: a gorgeous duet between the tallest of the male dancers and the smallest of the women. Circling each other initially like wary teenagers, the couple comes together in a series of clinches and lifts and swooning head buts that somehow suggest just how much is at stake--emotionally and physically--in the type and length of each successive touch or embrace. The romantic ante is upped considerably by the love song that accompanies the dancers, the first of several indie-style ballads offered up throughout the evening in which Gravel turns down the volume and, as he puts it just before a subsequent downstage acoustic number, presents his ensemble in a more "vulnerable" light.

For the multi-talented Gravel doesn't just dance, play guitar and harmonica, and sing as part of this piece; he also tells us several highly self-reflexive stories, starting with what it means to present a work like this to a new audience (he likens the experience to worrying about how one's date will behave at a party) and later musing on the concept of time, and how it's more valuable than money because once it's spent--as, for example, at a show such as his--you can never get it back. In these moments, and in the solo he has choreographed for himself--in which he contorts his skinny, pigeon-toed legs into an array of spidery poses--Gravel presents us with an utterly charming persona, the nerdily hip (and hipless) artsy boy from high school who wins everyone over because his awkwardness manages to appear sincere and ironic all at once. At the same time, Gravel--who also at one point ruminates aloud on the possible meaning of the piece's title--is resisting, through various shifts in tone and the overall episodic structure of the work, our urge to make things cohere aesthetically. As that title in fact attests, his is an anti-aesthetic, one that defies representational categories and eschews the impulse towards critical judgement. How else to explain the virtuosic--and utterly compelling--mash-up of a Bach violin concerto and a corps de rock of swiveling pelvises in the middle of the piece?

Consider as well, in this respect, the use of nudity in Usually Beauty Fails. At first it is presented as full-on rock star provocation, as the dancers, strutting and gyrating to a particularly explosive number from the band, start peeling off items of clothing with wild abandon. But then the music cuts out and the dancers, exposed and looking sheepish, quickly cover up, as if they have been caught by their parents doing something especially embarrassing. When, later on, we are confronted with a much more explicit display of naked bodies, there is, crucially, no music: two dancers, one male and one female, face each other downstage. They matter-of-factly peel their pants and underwear down to their ankles and proceed, slowly and deliberately, to grope each other's genitals. The effect is the opposite of erotic; if anything, it is humorous and absurdly clinical.

Not everything in the evening is a success. The ending, in particular, felt a little scattered and diffuse. Announcing that it's time for things to get a bit more formal, Gravel, his dancers, and the other two musicians then change into suits and dresses. They bring out plastic champagne flutes and pour each other, the guys in the tech booth, and a few lucky audience members some bubbly rosé. And then, basically, they just loll about. Until Gravel and one of the other female dancers slowly hook up--or try to hook up, their slippery, faltering attempts to grab onto each other's arms and waists and find something akin to a waltz step reminding me of two drunken, lovelorn souls who've stayed too long at a party, or the last exhausted partners at a depression-era dance marathon, desperately trying to stay on their feet and in contact with one another in order to win the prize. I found the sequence--both its pathos and its duration--captivating. But then the remaining dancers also partner up and we get two more successive variations on the same sequence, this time with each of the female dancers leaping over and over again into their male partners' arms.

I would have preferred if things had ended with the first couple. But I also understand--and appreciate--what Gravel is doing in undermining my desire for aesthetic closure. Performance, like beauty, doesn't end; it just goes on and on until it stops.

Usually Beauty Fails continues through this Thursday; it's not to be missed.


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