Theatrical Impression: ‘Usually Beauty Fails’ at On the Boards

Frédérick Gravel’s Usually Beauty Fails toured to Seattle last weekend at On the Boards. I knew about this show earlier in January, and was already hooked by the trailer. (The video link I’ve chosen above shows more of the different pieces, even though the audio quality is not as good.) First off, it is a dance piece, and second, it looked edgy and modern and fun.

I knew little about it going in, but went based solely on recommendation that I would love it. And I did.

Gravel combined challenging contemporary dance, new music reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie and other twee indie artists, rock and roll music, classical music, silence, rock show lighting, champagne, formal wear, and personal addresses to the audience that made for a visceral experience unlike any other I’d had in a long time.

My favorite parts were when certain dancers were highlighted. I found myself drawn to specific types of people, although every dancer was excellent. Gravel was the weakest dancer, but it was also a possible combination of his ultra long limbs and that he was choreographer, dancer, singer, musician, speaker. The other bodies on stage came off as a powerful pillars of strength, but they only had one objective to focus on.

I’m easily impressed when it comes to physical feats of strength, so I genuinely enjoyed watching the various exciting movements of counterbalance and dead weights as dancers jumped into each other and fell directly to the ground.

There was also nudity in the show, but not lewd. Even my showgoing partner’s favorite piece–which was two dancers touching each other’s erogenous zones with stoic facial expressions and no extraneous movement as the singer crooned in the back, “don’t turn me on”–wasn’t crass or inappropriate. Instead, it felt familiar. These are the same interactions we go through with each lover, while we succumb to the pressure to “perform” and react to what they are doing, as if it were the most original act. But it’s not original, we all go through these motions, and what matters is someone’s reactions. If you don’t react to a person’s touch, their touch loses more than its meaning. The touch loses its heart.

I was also prompted to go to this piece after reading Melody Datz’s review in The Stranger. She pointed out her disappointment with the lack of female voice in Usually Beauty Fails. As I watched the first female soloist perform after the first group number and counted the number of female to male dancers (3 and 3), I started to look for what Datz had mentioned. [update: I misattributed an opinion I read somewhere else on the same day and never went back to double check that Datz’s review is where I read it in the first place. I ended up conflating two opinions! Regardless, I entered the performance space on the lookout for how the bodies interacted with each other, which was especially poignant with the first pas de deux.] Were the female voices underrepresented? The first pas de deux was between a short and lithe female dancer with long long hair and a tall and muscular and tattooed male dancer with a lot of carrying the woman and grabbing her neck as she rebuffed the man’s advancements. Was I watching something misogynistic? But the movement was fascinating, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Was I loving it or was I hating it? Was it okay to do both?

Gravel spoke a few times throughout the show, showing off his vulnerability. It was after these truth-telling moments (how he composed his sentences, the openness of his speech and face) that I watched him perform his solo and I realized that the female voices were not the only underrepresented voices onstage. The other male voices were also not fully allowed to express themselves. And that makes sense, because this isn’t an ensemble of performers all working to portray a singular message. This is Gravel’s piece, this is his troupe, he replaces bodies as needed, and he is expressing himself. And that’s okay.

Once I got on board with the fact that I was watching Gravel’s interpretations of “what happens if I choose the weakest support for my wrists, turning them upside down” or “getting serious” with pas de deux that involve constantly having to shift the ladies’s dresses back down over their hips, I was even more into the show.

Usually Beauty Fails smashes so many clashing aesthetics and ideals together, but it can’t smash them all. Gravel is only one man.

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4 thoughts on “Theatrical Impression: ‘Usually Beauty Fails’ at On the Boards”

  1. Catherine, hello and thanks for writing this review. I’m so glad you were able to see this work at OtB–even a week later I’m still thinking about it and wishing I could see it again. I’m curious: what part of my review made it seem as if I was disappointed in a lack of female voice? I’m interested to know how this came across as I actually felt quite the opposite! I thought the female dancers were immensely powerful and was really touched by the equality of emotional and physical weight bearing in the choreography.

    1. Oh no! I feel awful. Your review was what prompted me to go to the show on Saturday instead of the other production I was considering… and I misremembered and misquoted you. I bet I read it on the OtB blog on the same day and conflated your review with that other person’s opinion.

      I will amend immediately! Thank you so much for pointing that out so that I could clarify.

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