I left last night's performance of Usually Beauty Fails at On the Boards feeling like I just got out of a very intense, hour and a half-long relationship.
It started the minute I walked into the theater—unlike the usual calm, somewhat blank pre-show atmosphere, the mood in OtB before the lights went down was so jarring and schizophrenic that people had trouble concentrating enough to find their seats. Loud, cacophonous bass and weird white lighting thrown onto the audience made us oddly conspicuous. Two people standing toward the front of the stage stared intently (maybe smirking?) at the ant-like crowd scurrying and bumping around the rows. The duo grew slowly until they formed a pyramid of six—then the lights went down and they started to creep toward the tangle of instruments, amps, and electrical cords at the back of the stage.
The dancers in Montreal-based Frédérick Gravel/Grouped'ArtGravelArtGroup's Usually Beauty Fails radiate sex and vulnerability and move in ways that would make most of us yelp in pain. They lead movements with elbows and shins, sometimes in weird, almost non-human angles, and here and there someone would plop down onto their knees in silent and surprisingly (even for dancers) graceful motions.
They are versatile—Gravel choreographs, composes, dances, sings, and plays multiple instruments in the show. The musicians stand at the back of the stage, creating an equality between all the artists—the songs are sometimes busy and complicated and sometimes beautifully simple.
That simplicity and vulnerability hit me the hardest—in one piece, the song’s refrain “today is broken” backed a pair of dancers who pushed, pulled, and tossed each other's weight around the stage until half the audience was leaning forward in their seats and barely breathing. One moment, the male dancer would hold his arm straight in front, palm against the sternum of his partner while she met his gaze and continued to move toward him until he relented, catching her as she leapt silently into his outstretched arms. They bounced back and forth this way across the stage, loving and hating each other—a theme that was repeated throughout the show in between various couples and groups of dancers. Clothes came off, balls and breasts were cupped, rumps shone under harsh stage lights, but it was not dirty, nobody humped onstage—it was more an illustration of those starkly human moments of sex where there is no hierarchy of body parts, where vaginas and penises and nipples and fingers and mouths and knees have equal standing as ingredients in that sacred process of shared intimacy.
There were parts of the show, toward the end, where I just wanted it to be over—I had to pee, I felt edgy in my seat after over an hour of intense action and conflicting emotions. Maybe that was their intent, to bring the audience down after the roller coaster of sound and light and music and moving bodies, and maybe that was good—I felt mildly drunk and it probably would have been dangerous to drive home without coming down a bit—a sort of theatrical post-sex cigarette.