Frédérick Gravel speaks on the experience, philosophy and fakeness of his Fluid Fest pieces


Frédérick Gravel pays as much attention to how his shows sound as he does to how they move.

That’s because Gravel is as much musician as he is choreographer, dancer, director — and lighting designer.

Often Gravel’s shows, such as Usually Beauty Fails, which he performed at Theatre Junction in 2015, feature original, live music onstage alongside the dancers.

However, when Gravel sat down with Montreal playwright Étienne Lepage a few years back to create Thus Spoke…,  one of two Gravel shows being presented at the 2017 Fluid Festival (along with This Duet We’ve Already Done (so many times), he had a different sound in mind.

“We have a lot of Jimi Hendrix music,” he says.

The show features three actors and one dancer. There’s a lot of text. It’s a lot of philosophy.

Why Hendrix?

“I’m a big Hendrix fan,” Gravel says, “and I guess (I thought) it was bringing this weight, this groove and this ground to the show (that) we needed.

“The ideas (expressed in the show) are going (by the audience) fast – and (so maybe I thought) we needed to ground everything (in a recognizable rock groove to make it more accessible),” he adds.

“The show is philosophy. It’s not a show about philosophy — it’s a show about doing philosophy, so maybe (by) bringing a bit more sexy vibe, we were just trying to make it a bit more enjoyable.”


Going to a performance created by Gravel is a bit of a departure from the usual contemporary dance experience because every Gravel piece carries with it an element of tension between the physical presentation of a performance and Gravel’s own self-awareness of the artifice of it all. Gravel is fond of questioning — or challenging — the entire notion of the authenticity of performance, and sometimes, such as in Usually Beauty Fails, he will stop the movement to have a conversation with the crowd about whatever idea he’s playing with.

It’s dance as an existential crisis — with humour and a restless critical energy to it.

It’s sexy philosophy. And how often do those two words make it into the same sentence?

“The thing is, I think, everything is fake,” Gravel says, “so onstage it’s onstage. It’s fake. (However), how to do it, how to do the fake of it can be quite sincere.

“As an artist, I like to surf on that idea getting the audience to enjoy being caught in the wave — at the same time really noticing that it’s all constructed,” he says.

“Maybe the way we’re working is to try to not let the audience just be there as passive or just contemplating what we just did. It’s a bit more engaging than that. I hope so.”

He doesn’t mind being cerebral onstage, but he doesn’t want it to be dull, either.

How, by the way, do you physicalize philosophy, Frédérick?

“That’s a very interesting question,” he says. “I’m trying to have a clever answer for that.”

Then, he delivers a very clever answer!

“It’s impossible to not physicalize philosophy,” he says. “That’s why there’s this mention of Nietzche in the piece because Nietzche is said to be the dancing philosopher.

“It is said about dance — and this you know how to be there physically and transcending daily tasks — be more of a dancer in your life.

“He was not writing books about it,” he says, “but in his books, there was a lot of mention about dance.”

If Thus Spoke… is one side of Gravel’s brain and his dancer/actors bodies in concert, then This Duet We’ve Already Done (so many times) is the other side. Created with Brianna Lombardo as part of Usually Beauty Fails, This Duet is the long play version of a duet that dominated the second part of that show.

It also marks the return of Gravel’s co-creator Lombardo, who gave birth to twins and hasn’t danced for two years.

If Thus Spoke… is an idea converted into physical energy, This Duet might be categorized as a new spin on the oldest dance in the playbook.

“Lots of duets have been done,” Gravel says, “and lots of love stories have been lived and written, lots of this (sort of dance) existed — so we know we were going through a (well) visited territory. So we approached creation thinking about that.”

Even more than overfamiliar, it might even be said that a lot of contemporary dance is a reaction to the duet, although that’s a longer conversation.

If the duet is the dance equivalent to the movie rom-com, Gravel and Lombardo approached it with a little more Amy Schumer and a little less Jennifer Aniston.

“We tried to not work on duality too much,” Gravel says, “not to work on these binary ways to see the relationship – and not to be (only) about anger or desire.

“The stretch would be more in the space where we would accept each other and share the space a bit – so that meant dancing a bit less. And looking a bit more and listening a bit more. That’s how we approached it.”

This Duet also features a significant amount of improvisation between Gravel and Lombardo — so the chemistry between them is everything, every night.

“I’m really glad to have her in the show again,” Gravel says. “We are excited because she created the show. It’s our show. It’s a relationship we built in the studio. It’s (the relationship) still really present in the show – there’s a lot of improvisation and we have to really listen to each other and see what’s happening (with each other onstage).”

The other departure for Gravel in This Duet is that he sets aside his existential angst a little and just dances.

“I don’t talk at all,” he says. “Nothing.”

As far as bringing two shows to a single festival, Gravel looks at each and tries to find the connecting thread.

“They both have a bit of a rock vibe,” he says. “but the topic and energy and even the way we created the shows are completely different. There’s nothing in common.”

Nothing except a singular, restless creative mind that keeps searching out the limits of an art form — and pushing them somewhere new.

“It would be a nice thing for people to see both and to see if there’s a signature or something that they get that it’s from the same person?”

The Fluid Festival & Theatre Junction present Thus Spoke… Oct 18-21 and This Duet We’ve Already Done (so many times) on Oct 25-26 at Decidedly Jazz Dance Centre. For tickets and more information please click here.

Stephen Hunt is the 2017 Fluid Festival writer in residence. He wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years, and teaches playwriting at UBC. He is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. You can reach him at, follow him on Twitter here, and read his blog The Halfstep here.