I've had a dance crush on Frédérick Gravel ever since the multi-talented choreographer, musician and performer brought Usually Beauty Fails to town in January 2014 in a co-presentation between the PuSh Festival and DanceHouse. So I was super excited to see that he was going to be back in town as part of this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival. Thus Spoke... is a collaboration between Gravel and Montreal-based playwright Étienne Lepage. At the top of the show, a dapperly dressed and hipsterly bearded Gravel, who has been hanging about on stage with his fellow performers (Frédéric Lavallée, Marilyn Perreault, and Anne Thériault) as spectators file into the Firehall auditorium, stands before the microphone positioned centre stage and tells us that now it seems the categories between dance and theatre have become hopelessly muddled, with folks who go to his shows expecting to see dance calling it theatre, and vice-versa. It's a not so subtle warning that what follows will be heavily dominated by Lepage's text, as well as a formal philosophical apology, in the manner of Plato's defence of Socrates or Nietzsche writing in Ecce Homo, of the singular artist's right to present the work he believes in without worrying about labels or fearing judgment (a theme that will return later on in the show).
For, indeed, as its title suggests, this piece is very much an homage to the German philosopher with whom Gravel shares a first name, from the choreographer's opening monologue about how "privileged" we are to waste our time watching this show to its circular structure enacting Nietzsche's concept of the "eternal recurrence of the same." In between, the other performers discourse on assassinating the premier of Québec, gross capital accumulation, and not being bothered by either the benign existence or potentially malignant beliefs and behaviour of other people--among many other topics. Occasionally, the various monologues are accompanied by a bit of movement: simple but sharply executed group unison, as with the step dance that is attached to Gravel's increasingly rapid fire account of the mercantile relationship between the salaryman who spends his days photocopying and the contractor whom he hires to fix his house; and idiosyncratic solos that showcase the performers' obvious kinetic talents alongside their verbal dexterity. My favourite in the latter category is Lavallée's gleeful demonstration of the transformational potential of altering one's world view by moving in "backwards mode," his slow reversing towards the upstage wall, thrusting one leg behind him and then reaching blindly into the unknown, seeming to crystallize and coalesce in a succinct yet compelling way the suitably Nietzschean idea of turning traditional morality and metaphysics (or just plain physics) on their heads.
Would that the piece had ended there. Instead, out of the blackout that ensues Perreault's voice emerges, launching into a long rumination on how many "shitty shows" she has seen in her lifetime and lamenting that all she needs to ignite her interest is "one simple idea" to latch onto. This section gets a lot of laughs, but it's also hard not to read it, along with a subsequent and much more serious speech by Perreault about the violent game of justice, as a somewhat obvious and unnecessary attempt to forestall any potential criticism that might get levelled against this show. And on that front let me say that my critique is not that Gravel and Lepage have failed to produce a single compelling idea out of their collaboration; it's that they've paradoxically produced too many. Which is to say that the text is so dominant, dense and wide-ranging in its allusions that it is hard, beyond the formal structural nod to Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to get a purchase on a through-line uniting each of the sections. But, then again, maybe this is just me seeking to impose a narrative the creators want to resist. As with the truss of band style backlights that, along with the microphone and stand passed from performer to performer, constitutes the main nod to scenography in the piece, perhaps we should approach this work like a rock concert rather than a concept album, revelling in individual moments rather than looking for the governing logic that connects them.