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What’s beautiful? By Donald Hutera: Frédérick Gravel at Dance Umbrella 2013


Donald Hutera speaks to Frédérick Gravel about his latest work 'Usually Beauty Fails', part of Dance Umbrella 2013, and the nature of beauty itself...

The multi-talented French-Canadian choreographer, dancer and musician Frédérick Gravel refers to his buoyant, rule-breaking show Usually Beauty Fails as “a choreographic concert.” Fresh, irony-laden yet unpretentious, it features half a dozen dancers and half as many musicians with Gravel himself as both participant and, in a sense, ringmaster. He dances, sings, plays guitar and delivers a few funny, perceptive monologues – smart musings, really – that are addressed directly to the audience.  

A performance, as Gravel says, requires mutual courage on the part of both viewers and artists. As he sees it, the public helps create a show because “they make it more tangible for us so we end up understanding what we are doing.”  

In truth Gravel seems to know exactly what he’s doing, which means that the spontaneous air which the work imparts is actually deceptive. Gravel is a thinker as well as a do-er (apparently his college thesis was about ‘the role of the dance artist in democratic society’), and yet there’s nothing pseudo-intellectual about what he puts on stage. The experience is lucid, immediate and great fun.


Now in his early 30s, Gravel is one of the younger members of a generation of Quebecois dance-makers about whom it’s been said, ‘their vitality is that of emergency.’ Like most human beings he’s a study in contradictions. Born in Montreal, he was ten when the family moved to a more northerly Canadian province. “So I'm a mix of being raised in a big city and in the country,” he avows. Gravel’s mother is a dance teacher, something which no doubt helped ensure that young Frédérick and his two brothers were taken to a lot of theatre, dance and music concerts. “And there were lots of books in the house,” he says, adding that his father isn’t an artist “but he didn't complain. He would make us play hockey - we still do - and other sports.”  

Gravel’s grandfather, now 93, is a folk musician which may account at least in part for his grandchildren’s musical inclinations. As Gravel elaborates, “My older brother is a musician who created Gravel Works in 2008 with me. Now he’s more of a scientist with a PhD in kinesiology. But the fact that he was also into arts really gave me a lot to think about and make progress with, kind of side by side with him.”  

Gravel heads up a family-like collective called GravelArtGroup. “This artistic project has been going for a while but we’re still not really known yet. I don't have regular funding and only hire dancers and musicians when there’s a new project – and money.” He began to take dance seriously as a career in 2004 when he landed jobs as both dancer (in a piece by the envelope-pushing Dave Saint-Pierre) and musician (in a show with a live band). Both works, says Gravel, happened to involve the drinking of Scotch. “I think from this moment there was always alcohol [in my shows],” he jokes. “It’s like a social prop. It makes it [the performance] look like it’s happening somewhere else than on a stage.”  

For Gravel professional dance is “a way to experience the world more intensively. But to be able to do it on stage you have to be really sensitive. I don’t think I’m into dance but more what the dancers are and what they are able to do – or not do. I mean, how they can control their behavior on stage and decide to reveal something or not? For that I like to work with actors, too.”  

Someone once remarked that each dance performance is asking a question. Gravel’s response?

“For me there isn’t always a question but maybe more of a concern.” A central concern of Usually Beauty Fails was, as he now sees it, “What can I do that would be beautiful and that I would still want to show or find active, questioning and engaging? I thought that beauty was something we’re pursuing – like there’s a truth in it. But beauty is a construction like everything else. We’re somewhat engaged – or not – in the construction of what we elect as beautiful. That’s the starting point.”  

From there, Gravel continues, he wondered, “What’s beautiful about the naïve side of pop culture? And what’s beautiful in our desire for beauty? I think this show is about desire, and the last section is mostly about how this desire makes our relationships complicated... It's about the pursuit of something, and all the accidents that occur because we want it but all the time miss it. Missing things makes movement. I find this more interesting than not missing.”

  About audiences Gravel says, “People can get disturbed by the fact that my shows don't have that much dance in them. But I know that a lot of people who don't ‘get’ dance are appreciating my dance. Really, the shows I make aren’t too demanding. And even if this isn’t Broadway they all have to be engaging, otherwise it doesn't interest me.”

  On the subject of contradictions, Gravel names things that either delight or disgust him: “I like to travel but I hate flying. But I really like planes! I just don't like airports and security, and being treated like a plant or a not-so-developed animal. I like philosophy. I don't like people who think they know stuff. I like to play hockey, to run and ride a bicycle, and to play musical instruments. I don't like what hockey is in the professional leagues. I like pop music, but I don't like pop stars!”  

Although he’s been in the business for nearly a decade, Gravel still regards himself as something of a novice. “Doing international festivals, and being taken a little more seriously, are quite new for us. But, at the same time, I'm really glad to come to London and see what resonates.”  

Part of Dance Umbrella 2013

Frédérick Gravel (Canada / Quebéc)

Usually Beauty Fails

Central Saint Martins: Platform Theatre

Fri 4 & Sat 5 Oct, 9pm

Tickets: £15 (£12 concs.)

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