PuSh Festival: Usually Beauty Fails rocks the dance stage

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Take the power of a live rock concert and plug it into the raw energy of six young dancers. Supercharge it with some sly commentary about both contemporary dance and pop culture, and you’ll come somewhere close to the visceral, audacious work that is Usually Beauty Fails.

Montreal provocateur, dance artist, and musician Frédérick Gravel has rocked Quebec and Europe with this show to enthusiastic response. Now, for the first time, his Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup makes its way to the West Coast for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

Reviews have talked about Usually Beauty Fails’s intense, driving energy, and the thoughtful Gravel offers up reasons why it has such immediate appeal. “I don’t work on the form that much, but more on the impulses—where the movement is coming from in the body but not where it’s ending,” he begins. “I also think the music is a big factor in that—it’s live, it can be loud, it’s more concrete. We really see people doing something.”

Explaining just what those dancers are expressing by gyrating, grinding, slamming into the floor, jumping into each other’s arms, and even pulling up their shirts is a tad more difficult. Always questioning his art form and somewhat critical of it, Gravel says the whole piece started with “a stupid question I asked myself”. He wanted to know what “beauty” would look like in his own work. Because, frankly, he was getting a little sick of the way it was portrayed so often in contemporary dance and pop culture.

Speaking of dance in general, the ever-questioning artist admits: “I was asking myself, ‘Am I immune to beauty or emotion?’ When it gets too emotional, when it’s plain beautiful movement, I become a skeptic.”

The piece became focused on revealing what real beauty might be, in all its imperfection, and the way desire drives so much of what we see. Gravel plays with the fact that the desire for pleasure appears in so many advertising spots and music videos. He says he wanted to show dancers “really wanting something”.

The guitar-driven live music, provided by three fully amped musicians, including Gravel himself, was always integral and has been to much of his work. As for the dance, he aimed to make sure that people who really know the art form could recognize the conventions he’s toying with.

But here’s the advice he gave his mother, a long-time dance teacher, before she came to see the piece for the first time: “Don’t come to see a dance show; just see the show that I created not thinking about the art form.” He adds to the Straight: “If someone doesn’t know a lot about dance, that’s okay, because it uses pop-culture codes as well.”

True to the PuSh spirit, Usually Beauty Fails prods the audience and puts it in a different role. Gravel addresses his viewers directly, a tactic he says might diminish some of the theatricality of the work, but that allows him to take it places it might never have been able to go otherwise.

In a final playful mindfuck, he tries to put into words a show that ultimately must be felt and experienced.

“I like to work with what’s real and not real,” he tries to explain. “I mean, it’s not real but we’re doing things that are real.” He stops, and you can sense he’s smiling. “It can be complicated.” A bit like life, desire, and, of course, beauty.

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