Frédérick Gravel is the rare Montreal dance artist Vancouverites have gotten the chance to know really well—quite intimately, in fact, because of the raw nature of his work.
The love affair started in 2014, when his Usually Beauty Fails detonated at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Crowds here ate up its live-concert mashup of electric guitars and dance that drove its performers past the point of exhaustion.
Since then, the conversation has continued, from the Jimi Hendrix–pumped Thus Spoke… at Dancing on the Edge to the beer-and-baseball-fuelled look at masculinity that was All Hell Is Breaking Loose, Honey at the Cultch. Then audiences saw more of his work earlier this year at PuSh, when Some Hope for the Bastards ignited a party on-stage, its dancers swigging Corona beer and mingling with the audience off the top of the show.
But fans have never quite seen Gravel like they will in This Duet That We’ve Already Done (so many times). Rather than a big, bombastic rock show, the contemporary-dance renegade will deconstruct and put his own real-feeling spin on the pas de deux when the production opens at the Cultch.
No live guitars here; Gravel triggers most of the playlist through an on-stage iPad. (Think Joy Division and Last Ex.) And there’s another big difference for the hilariously dry, famously self-effacing artist who’s well-known for picking up a microphone and directly addressing his viewers. The microphone is often one of Gravel’s central set pieces: in Usually Beauty Fails, he would often stop the movement to converse with the crowd.
“I don’t talk in this one, there are no words, no MC, nobody speaking to the audience,” he reveals over the phone from Montreal, where he’s just taken on the position of artistic director at Daniel Léveillé Danse (DLD), a sort of umbrella group for dance creators in that city. He goes on to explain that in This Duet That We’ve Already Done (so many times), he didn’t want to be separate from long-time company dancer Brianna Lombardo, in that way. “I wanted two people equal on-stage.”
Physically, though, Gravel is on familiar terrain. Gravel is all about keeping it real; his work digs at human nature in all its raw, messy authenticity. At the same time, he wanted to challenge all the clichés around duets in dance.
“I thought, ‘Can we make it equal? Can we make it so it’s not like the woman is this light, flying dancer and the guy is this solid guy who would catch her?’ ” he relates. “ ‘Can we be after first love, after the passion? What would be something that’s still there?’ This show is about lots of things—people can see a whole life or even a friendship. It’s about having fun, but still being amazed by the other person just existing.”
The duet ends up being a little bit clumsy, credibly laid-back, and painfully natural. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, that’s very hard work, Gravel says. “In dance, you think you have to be talented and beautiful, and you have to work against that a bit,” he says. “You have to try to be relevant and just be there. Mostly, it’s trying to restrain yourself.
“You let some time be; two seconds can feel like a month on-stage,” he adds. “So we’re waiting and pacing ourselves. And then we’re really simply and stupidly looking at one another. As dancers we tend to look at hips or arms—at what we will grab or avoid, but when you look at someone socially, you look them in the eye.”
Gravel has formed a tight off- and on-stage bond with the muscular, auburn-haired firecracker that is Lombardo, a standout in his troupe who recently returned to the stage after having twins.
“We were in Paris this year and she brought her twins, and I was doing cooking for the whole bunch, and it’s kind of like it’s your second family,” he muses. “They really know what you’re going through, trying to make this thing live. And though I can’t have a contest in Montreal about who’s the best dancer, she would be a finalist. She’s so technically strong and fast and graceful, and I’m kind of awkward and not that precise and not that technical.”
As much fun as Gravel and Lombardo are ultimately having on-stage, the effect can go very deep. And even in this scaled-back piece for two people, the ideas are bigger than just the duet happening on-stage.
“The world we’re in is really polished,” Gravel says, getting serious for a moment to talk about the globe at large. “When everything is going really wrong, everything’s really polished—and the media and the politicians can’t have any doubt. It’s about not showing doubt and vulnerability. So on-stage we really have to be vulnerable. If we are not able to do it in that protected space, we aren’t gonna be able to do it anywhere else.”
This Duet That We’ve Already Done (so many times) is at the Cultch Historic Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday (November 27 to December 1).