At Dancing on the Edge, Frédérick Gravel and Étienne Lepage tap the magic of the microphone

Montreal dance rebel mashes words, movement, and rock 'n' roll in the festival opener

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      The microphone holds a power, grabbing attention and amplifying a performer’s voice. It’s an object wielded by rappers, radio announcers, standup comedians, and jazz singers—but rarely has it been used to such effect in dance.

      Audacious Montreal choreographer-musician Frédérick Gravel employed the mike with style in the buzzed-about Usually Beauty Fails at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival here in 2014. He managed to somehow meld a rock concert and contemporary dance, often strapping on an electric guitar and grabbing the mike to banter with the audience and bust down the fourth wall. The raw, unnerving piece played out like a concept album of human desire.

      Now Gravel is pulling out a microphone stand again for a very different, dance-theatre work called Thus Spoke… at the Dancing on the Edge festival. He’s teamed up with writer Étienne Lepage to weave spoken parts and movement together, amped up by concert-style lighting and the roaring rhythms of Jimi Hendrix.

      “We tried to find a new language that would be our language—a new language just for this show,” Gravel explains to the Straight from Paris, where he’s performing before heading out here. He’s speaking in the gentle French-accented voice that audiences recognize from the stage, though he says he’s speaking slower because he’s in a “postshow vibe”. “It took some time, asking, ‘How can we move and talk to the audience?’ It took us three years.”

      “I thought I would do a half and he would do a half, but we ended up working twice as hard to put something together,” Lepage says with a laugh in a separate interview from their hometown of Mon­treal. “It’s rare as artists that we can think together: here, he is working on my writing, I’m proposing movement, and we’re doing the scenography together. It’s a very long process; being two is twice the effort. We had to invent a way of working…It was a strange adventure of exploration.”

      Lepage had seen Gravel’s work around Montreal and felt a connection. “His shows are very rock ’n’ roll and very theatrical, he’s talking to the audience, and I think he’s a kind of character,” the playwright says, referring to the mix of vulnerability and attitude Gravel manages to convey in his direct addresses to the audience. “I have this kind of writing that is like pieces. A lot of times it’s with characters that come out of nowhere; they’re not politically correct and not perfectly intelligent and a bit morally ambiguous. And I was thinking his way of putting a show on the stage would fit very well with how I was writing.”

      Those provocative, almost stream-of-consciousness monologues—a man talking about how privileged the audience is, a woman insisting she doesn’t care about anything anymore, another wondering why all the shows she sees suck—helped necessitate the microphone for the mix of actors and dancers (including Gravel) that perform the piece. But in true Gravel innovative fashion, it also centres the movement.

      “It grounds them in a simple way and gives them a reason to go to the middle of the stage and do something,” observes Lepage. “It gives them reasons to come in and come out, and you don’t question them too much.”

      As for the growling Hendrix music, it’s a long-time favourite of Gravel’s and gives the production the raw energy and sexiness that he was going for. If you’ve seen Gravel’s work, it is less about technical dancing and more about getting at something uncensored, awkward, and brutally honest. When performers aren’t speaking, they’re gyrating, grinding, and convulsing—often staring the audience down while they’re doing it. His shows feel like something new and real.

      Eric Robideau spazzes by a mike that's used for more than just amplified words in Thus Spoke....
      Nadine Gomez

      “I think it’s about being as live as we can be, as in the instant as we can be,” Gravel tries to explain of the approach that is stirring up contemporary dance across Europe and North America. “Being in the instant brings a vulnerability and at the same time makes the show a little more open to the conversation with the audience…The work is really about sincerity and vulnerability, and we have to find tools to do that.”

      He describes Thus Spoke… as being “philosophical, with a rock ’n’ roll vibe”. For his part, Lepage says, “It’s really concentrated and sexy and loud.” But if anything, it’s more slick, with its text and lighting and music cues, than All Hell Is Breaking Loose, Honey, the all-male explosion of T-shirts, beer, baseball, and violence that Gravel is bringing to the Cultch in November: “It’s still a written dance,” he says of that second visit, “but it’s maybe the rawest thing I’ve ever done.”

      For Lepage, Thus Spoke… falls into an indefinable territory between dance and theatre, and between the formal and the experimental. “This is where people start to be challenged and uncomfortable and that’s why festival format is good: the audiences there can see not to see how it should be but how it can be,” Lepage says.

      That boundary-breaking has to go back to the mixed background Gravel brings to the studio. “I always feel like an imposter because I am doing everything. I’m a bit of a dancer, a bit of a musician, a bit of a designer,” he says with a quiet laugh. “So I feel like an imposter, but at the same time it gives me all the insight into different areas. That’s the secret to being an imposter: you do things you don’t know about and are courageous and naive enough to do it.”

      Thus Spoke... runs from July 8 to 10 at the Firehall Arts centre as part of Dancing on the Edge (July 7 to 16).