Frédérick Gravel teeters between worlds. His show, Usually Beauty Fails, was half dance performance and half music concert, without the normal divisions—all performing as part of GravelArtGroup. The band occupied the back half of the On the Boards mainstage this past weekend, January 23-26, while the dance seemed to surround them. Gravel floated between playing with the band, dancing with the company, and speaking into the microphone between numbers—wooing the audience with his sweetly earnest candor and French-Canadian accent.
The movement is similarly many things at once—a disjointed staccato became a buttery flow that the dancers executed with perfect control of tension and release. The phrases seemed to constantly fall in unexpected directions, only to rebound from gravity with a full body launch. The movement felt like ballet crossed with contact improv crossed with a drunken orangutan—in the best possible way. There were group sections, but much of the evening centered on male-female duets, which felt more honest than simple heteronormative default. The unpredictability of the creative and perfectly timed partnering made the duets delightful to watch. While there was little narrative, a hand to the neck or a collapse into support expressed relationship dynamics that were seamlessly integrated into the choreography. Another duet offered a more pedestrian perspective with a man and a woman taking turns touching the other’s naked body, clearly navigating the awkward territory of first sexual encounters.
“When someone shows a little vulnerability, I’ve noticed it brings people closer together…So let’s do that,” Gravel remarked before the band grouped in a downstage spotlight for an acoustic song. The music was not an afterthought—and kept the evening moving with a range of styles integrating turntables, rock and roll, and brass instruments. There was even some pelvic thrusting to recorded classical music, a sight strangely satisfying to watch. Towards the end of the evening the band joined the dancers for a glass of champagne at the scene of a dying party—one couple dragging it out in silence as the others watched on wearily. The audience was included in the scene (some were even offered a glass of champagne) and the sense that the festivities had ended and perhaps it was time everyone went home, pervaded the final moments.
Gravel’s choreography revealed undeniably simian grace and embraced discomfort to the extent that it becomes its own kind of beauty. The focus on duets made the whole evening feel like a metaphor for relationships—joy, sadness, sex, frustration, and solitude painting a complex picture of the space between two people.
To find out more about On the Boards’ programming, visit ontheboards.org.