I have renewed my love affair with Montreal choreographer-musician Frédérik Gravel. I fell hard for him following the premiere of Usually Beauty Fails at the 2014 PuSh Festival. But when he returned to the city in 2016 for the Dancing on the Edge Festival, I found the piece he presented, Thus Spoke..., to lack coherence and to border on self-indulgence. Some Hope for the Bastards, which opened this year's PuSh Festival last night at the Vancouver Playhouse, showcases Gravel at his most sublimely seductive, constructing an epic dance marathon in which the point of the party is less who's left standing at the end than the summation of highs and lows along the way.
When we enter the auditorium, Gravel's nine dancers are already lounging on the stage, sipping from bottles of Corona. They watch us as we take our seats, sometimes interacting with us (SFU theatre student Nicola Rough somehow made it on to the stage itself and was handed a beer), coming and going at random, but definitely aware--and maybe even amused--by our presence. At a certain point, with the house lights remaining up, the dancers' apparent pre-show casualness morphs slowly into performance mode, their poses slipping into stylized and increasingly exaggerated contortions, like time-lapse versions of drunken partygoers falling off their chairs and into a stupefied tableau. Which is in fact how this sequence ends, the dancers ranged with splayed legs and outstretched arms and rubberized heads and torsos among the plastic chairs that line the stage. It is at this point that guitarist Gravel, who in the middle of this sequence had emerged from the stage right wing with his fellow bandmates (a drummer and keyboardist/singer) to ascend the upstage bandstand and take up instruments, addresses the audience. He welcomes us to the start of the festival, worries about the responsibility of opening it, that that's a very adult thing, that after the assumption of such adult responsibility all there is left to do is die. Then he tells us the show is pretty long, that he doesn't mind if we leave before it's over, and that now they're going to start over because in making the show he couldn't decide how to begin.
This second beginning takes place to a recorded excerpt from what I think is a Bach misericordia, to which the dancers ever so gradually start to pulse their pelvises as Gravel gradually overlays more propulsive electronic beats. The sonic and kinetic marrying of sex and death, coming after Gravel's speech about adult responsibility, suggests that if all we do is live to die, then we might as well try to enjoy ourselves along the way. Indeed, the metaphor of life as an all-night dance party--filled with ecstatic highs and crashing lows, pockets of stillness amidst a non-stop whirl of movement--is what sustains this work conceptually, tonally, and stylistically. It explains, for example, the almost-but-not-quite hook-ups that occur as the dancers' gyrating hips lead them towards and then away from potential partners; the look-at me solos that occur soon after as different members of the ensemble preen or crash about the stage, or monkey wildly behind one another; and those moments of tender connection when couples do manage to form, even if only tentatively. That happens, for example, in a beautiful stuttered, bone-bending waltz between the tallest female and male dancers (the latter an incredibly willowy Ichabod Crane figure who nevertheless has utterly fluid liquid limbs) early on in the piece, and also later during a largely stilled rehearsal for touching among eight of the dancers as the ninth performs a reaching solo around them.
As with dance parties, there are also in Some Hope various time-outs, in which both the band members and the dancers take breaks and leave the stage, or else sit off to the sides watching as others work to sustain the energy. These moments, in which we in the audience also get a chance to catch our breaths, are juxtaposed to the relentlessly propulsive group movement sequences, with Gravel using a series of staggered canons to throw his dancers in and out of syncopated unison. And I do mean throw: the dancers fling their bodies onto the floor; whip themselves into twisted lunges; fall to their knees. My head exploded just thinking about the complexity of the dancers' counts, and one could forgive some necessary spotting among members of the group. Because absolute precision is not the point. Indeed, when a version of this choreography repeats at the end of the piece--in a coda I'm not entirely sure is necessary, especially after we arrive back at the core beat pulsing through their bodies with which we started--the dancers seem to be given license to fall into and out of rhythm when and with whom they see fit. That's part of the entrainment of life itself. Sometimes we're in step with others, and sometimes we're not. Sometimes we move this way, and sometimes that way.
The point is to not stop moving.