Usually Beauty Fails is raw, honest, and unnerving

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A Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup production, presented by the Push International Performing Arts Festival. At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, on Tuesday, January 28. Continues January 29 and 30

As experiences at the theatre go, you’re unlikely to see anything more raw, honest, and frankly unnerving than Usually Beauty Fails this year. The carnal, the awkward, and the nakedly vulnerable all mash together in what plays out like a concept album of human desire.

The risk-taking work by Montreal’s audacious choreographer-musician Frédérick Gravel mixes the intensity of a sweaty club concert with contemporary dance. This bearded hipster in skinny jeans is the ultimate, low-key Renaissance man: one minute he’s skittering around the floor like a rubbery praying mantis, the next he’s strapping on an electric guitar, and the next he’s at the mike, bantering with the audience and joking about how much he’s being paid for the evening.

None of this would work if the on-stage, three-man band weren’t so off-the-hook, switching it up between chest-thumping EDM, coffee-shop folk ballads, and power-guitar numbers. It all works terrifically well in the industrial-feeling Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, its flies opened up and a wall of concert lights sporadically blaring and flashing behind the dancers.

But the meld of live music and dance isn’t where Gravel gets really subversive. It’s in the way he handles the idea of “beauty” in the title. The artist subverts not just aesthetic dance conventions at every turn, but society’s ideals of beauty—as Gravel puts it in his brief monologues, “something we are pursuing but also something we are constructing”.
Nothing is romanticized or polished here. Take Gravel’s own duet with Brianna Lombardo, in which they repeatedly whirl around, trying to connect in slow-dance style but perennially failing, as she slips off him over and over onto the floor, like he’s covered in some invisible, slippery grease.

The vocabulary is crude and thick with wanting: a man might put his hand tentatively on a woman’s crotch, then run it up toward her chest; or he might bend down and bury his head between her hips as she stands there. In one number, the corps gyrates and swivels its hips luridly to a pristine baroque recording; in another, the troupe inches up its shirts and undoes its flies to the pounding beat, occasionally exchanging looks, in a play on the blatant striptease and seduction of… What? Modern advertising? Slick TV dance numbers?

But the awkwardness of sex plays out most hilariously in the most talked-about sequence of the night, when two dancers pull their pants to their ankles, staring each other down, then randomly cupping boobs and balls. If this sounds crude, it isn’t; more like something oddly human.

By the end, Gravel has converted the stage into some kind of urban party scene, the women and men, formerly in street clothes, now dressed up and handing out champagne glasses in a surreal social gathering that starts to spiral out of control.

This is not “beautiful” dance movement. Not everyone is going to want to be plunged for an extended period into this unpredictable, brutally intimate, and sometimes uncomfortable world. But for those who think those descriptions sound a lot like life, and sex, head on down to the subterranean theatre in Gastown for an authentic look at someone who’s “keepin’ it real”—for real.

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