The Canada Dance Festival(CDF) is back in town this week and this year they’re looking to compel audiences through the “amazing physicality of the body moving through space” (Jeanne Holmes, Festival Artistic Director, Show Program 2016). With performances happening at four different venues plus four different site-specific works the 2016 CDF boasts quite the roster. I had the pleasure of attending Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup’s Usually Beauty Fails (created, directed, and choreographed by Frédérick Gravel) on opening night at the National Art Centre’s Theatre Space and what I experienced was a wholly new atmosphere, or vibe, than I’ve ever felt in any dance piece I’d seen prior. A good indication of what’s being showcased at this year’s festival.

In the show program, CDF Artistic Director Jeanne Holmes describes Gravel as being a “renaissance man” in that many of the proverbial hats he dons as “musician/dancer/actor/comic/choreographer/rock-star” are all evident in his work and Usually Beauty Fails is no exception. It was a unique encounter for me and I certainly felt the “new energy” Holmes describes: aggressive yet vulnerable; high intensity but tongue-in-cheek all at once. The live music composed on stage blended with the physical dancers and their choreography gives this piece a concert-like semblance where it feels more appropriate to sing along and dance with the performers as opposed to trying to find any sort of narrative. Don’t get me wrong though, a few sections in this piece offer up a clear narrative through movement and this makes for some beautiful moments on stage.

Take, for example, the section where two of the six performers come forward to extreme downstage centre, where they are highlighted within a spot light, and proceed to strip each other from the waist down. What happens next in this scene (and possibly my favourite scene in the entire show) can be described as awkward fumbling, or exploration, as the two characters try to figure out the other’s physical form and perhaps their own sexuality. The scene is further coloured by using the sound of chirping birds, undoubtedly calling to mind the concept of ‘the birds and the bees’. I thought this part of the show was particularly beautiful in its authenticity and its humour- its narrative crystal clear through movement and gesture.

The live music is exceptionally executed by the three musicians, including Gravel himself, and the soundtrack ranges from electropop-rock to folk. I especially enjoyed the contrast between the sounds that are loud and hard-hitting and the tracks that are more quiet and intimate. Gravel has a nice genuine presence on stage when he addresses the audience in between scenes and he is quite funny, however, I did find myself wishing these intermissions weren’t so long or, perhaps, so many. Though this is only to the credit of the performers themselves as I was eager to see what they were going to show us next. Last but not least, I have to give a shout out to Alexandre Pilon-Guay and his excellent lighting design.

Overall, what impresses me the most about this show is how accessible and inclusive it is as a piece of performance. Gravel strikes a really nice balance between visual and audio elements in Usually Beauty Fails that I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to suggest that hearing/visually impaired individuals could engage with this piece. And that’s the incredible thing about dance theatre: because it’s not always concerned with narrative or the elements that come along with it (i.e. character development, subplots, climax, resolution etc.), it opens up more opportunity to engage with and interpret a work without necessarily having to have experienced the work as a “whole”. Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup, in my opinion, have successfully created a show where each of the individual elements that make up Usually Beauty Fails could stand alone and still be worthy of critical engagement.

The Canada Dance Festival runs until June 11th. Ticket information can be found here.


Brianna McFarlane

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