A Ready Grace Jan 24, 2014

by John Boylan

I remember thinking when I was a teenager how great it would be to be able to walk like Fred Astaire. Not to dance like him; that was a style that was sufficiently unique and set in a point in time as to be obviously pointless to duplicate.

But to be able to walk like the man, to have that ready grace, that supreme confidence, that relaxed power in everyday movement, that would be something—at least for an awkward adolescent.

From the moment when they gather on the stage, silently watching the audience, the dancers of Frederick Gravel’s Usually Beauty Fails are bursting with a ready grace. They stand, each alone facing out toward the audience, looking, as a friend of mine pointed out, like people standing on a subway platform waiting for the next train. But even at rest, they show a controlled dynamism, a fierce strength that never quite explodes, but burns hot and bright—and maybe most important—with a deep ferocity throughout the performance that follows.

When they are not performing in a series of duos and solos, the dancers are walking about the stage or moving in ways that are a delight to watch. The duos are explorations of love and sexuality that, even when they are explicit, are never really erotic, but are simply human, intimate, and more than a little absurd.

Watching these moments, I could not help think about the paintings I had seen not long before at the Frye Art Museum. These were a collection of the work of Franz von Stuck, a celebrated German artist working at the turn of the twentieth century. Stuck was at the heart of the collecting impulse that drove the creation of the Frye collection. A version of his “Sin,” a beautiful eroticized Eve, has long been the central image at the museum. He seemed to be obsessed with the idea of women as erotic temptresses leading men astray, and with a bizarre vision of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” demonstrated through images of men fighting, with knives or with their bare hands, for the possession of a woman who passively awaits the outcome of the fight.

More than a century later, such images might seem obviously cartoonish, except to the extent that updated versions of them still drive popular visions of love and sexuality. Here, instead, the Gravel dancers portray a vision of love and intimacy that is curious, a little stylized, and marked with a complex motion of give and take that is vivid and powerful.

Gravel plays a mean harmonica. That one idea, of the lead dancer and choreographer playing harmonica onstage, suggests the musical departures that drive this work, ranging through electronica, loud solid rock, and sweetly voiced ballads.

Finally, I have to note that droll, deadpan humor spoken in English is perhaps best done with a French accent.

John Boylan