Frédérick Gravel and company made a pleasant but puzzling debut at On the Boards last night. When it begins, Usually Beauty Fails seems to be a by-the-book contemporary dance piece with clever movements executed by a hip and capable crew. But just two numbers in, Gravel breaks the fourth wall and from there it becomes something more like a cabaret. If one has been paying attention, it doesn’t come as a surprise, for even the ultra-hip opening number bears the charming mark of choreographer who is as sincere as he is knowing and as humble as he is frank.
By the time the lights dim, the six dancers have one-by-one taken places near the front, bobbing their heads to an energetic, deep beat and gazing out toward (but not really at) the audience, and the dance piece that ensues is strong and appealing. The movements take the dancers strutting up the stage, then yanked back over and over. It is fair to say they are yanked all about all night. Their movements are disciplined, but as characters these are sympathetic figures that for all their hipness are not much in control of themselves, their desires, or their happiness. All of the dancers showed impressive strength and precision. From where I sat, Brianna Lombardo had many stand-out moments of control and poise. The men’s physiques were thicker than one usually sees among dancers, but they proved very agile. Frédéric Tavernini is a weapon.
Some of the most impressive moves repeated throughout are quick rolls and hops while prone and a lot of positioning on the knees that looks simple but belies a lot of strength. There is a voluptuousness to this positioning, but also a tension and a humility, and when the dancers are upright its generally even more awkwardly longing or confrontational. At times it is humorous, at others melancholy, and generally it is somewhere in between. It is at the very least coming from one who has made himself vulnerable as he offers his work up and says, “Here’s what we made. I hope you like it,” and means it.
Gravel’s monologues to the audience sweetly affirm what is already felt in the works. Part of me felt that this made the monologues a touch redundant, but the anecdotes were clever little observations and what he had to say about the subject of beauty and his role as a performer was nice to hear in plain terms. For those who are less familiar with contemporary dance and are intimidated by it (or art in general), Gravel’s address to the crowd might relieve tension and make people more receptive to the work. This “nice guy” approach might be used disingenuously to defuse harsher criticism, but the work itself quietly insists this is not the case with Gravel, who thus becomes an advocate for dance and art and a pursuit of real beauty in general, not just his own work.
Without calling it out or speaking against it, Gravel acknowledges a general cynicism and shallowness in most interactions and transactions and how we spend our time—the ultimate commodity. He states his fascination with beauty as something that is constructed by a culture as we pursue it, and by this definition it can never really be caught or understood. In a characteristically self-effacing moment, Gravel admits that the title of the show is not something fully understood by him, but occurred to him as a line that would be spoken in a movie he vaguely imagines during an important, memorable scene (and would be a really nice line).
This statement made me consider that perhaps the Gravel on stage was just another character, not the real Gravel, and he had cast himself as an insouciant, cinematic dreamer who has this idea that “usually beauty fails,” but can’t articulate why. If I may make a suggestion, it is because if the appreciation of beauty must teeter between a narrow ideal or a blurred, inarticulate vision, then the reality—where true beauty might reside—will always disappoint. Unfortunately, the blur and ideal are generally the two forms that a popular beauty will take as it is simultaneously constructed and pursued. The characters portrayed by the dancers display that disappointment variously throughout the performance, and whether or not Gravel is aware of these dynamics intuitively or if he is shielding himself behind a less aware persona onstage, these characters have pathos; they are not treated with scorn, and thus neither is the audience. It is rare to see someone make recognizable characters (including—dare I say it?—hipster archetypes) that are treated with humanity, even as one is made to ponder the absurdity, frenzy and sadness in modern western culture.
The show’s weakest point is that it feels unedited. Gravel often extends a scenario or a movement too long. In some cases, the extension is precisely what makes it work, and in other pieces by other troupes the audience is challenged to endure something repetitive or hyper-extended and it makes sense. Here, when the audience has been treated with such familiarity, it feels just tedious.
The music that accompanies the dance ranges a bit in style, but no song could stand very well on its own. The heavier beats are addictive and definitely danceable, but some of the tunes verge on twee (especially one bit that sounded like Cake in the mid-90s). At its most successful the music adds a layer of context to the performance by opposing the action. E.g. a song presented as a moment of vulnerability is accompanied by sharp, synchronized movements from the dancers, near to the floor but quick and aggressive. In a sequence more on the nose in this regard, singer Stéphan Boucher croons “You turn me on” as a couple fails to do just that to each other. Certain sequences toward the end are weaker as the music and action allow each other to sink into sentimentality. A slow dance becomes an expression of awkward longing, but just gets sloppy and tiresome by the end. If this moment was an earnest attempt at beauty…Well, a wise man said it usually fails, so there you go.
Gravel and company present a commendable blend of performance that is comedic and satiric without being cruel, voluptuous but not crass, and so humble that when it verges on maudlin, there is still a sweet sincerity to it. It’s delightful and wise, and certainly unique among most performances and it deserved all the applause that it got between numbers. Go in knowing that you will be entertained, but above all go in knowing that you will be respected even as some of our worst habits are called out.
Usually Beauty Fails plays through January 26 at On the Boards