Journal

It's fucking excruciating (this, not the show) Jan 27, 2014

by Eric Olson

Eric: After watching Frédérick Gravel's Usually Beauty Fails, I remember saying that I enjoyed the performance, but I also jokingly quipped, "don't I like them all?". My tablemates disagreed: I was quickly reminded that I don't like them all. Tessa mentioned later, "I would pay to see the show again, right now, if it was playing again this instant.” I don't know if I would want to see it twice in one night, but I would definitely see it again on Sunday. Especially if anyone has an extra ticket and needs a date. 

We moved on to discuss how the show reminded us of all of our failed relationships, missed connections; a series of mirages. Someone said that the last scene, where everyone dressed up in semi formal attire, was basically the last paragraph of The Great Gatsby. Tessa said, with fascination, that she had read The Great Gatsby 27 times and was sure that scene was exactly that. I said I had never read it. Everyone gasped. 

Even without the possibly awkward looking question mark at the end its title, Usually Beauty Fails is a performance about questions. Why am I stuck in the constant cycle of chasing after the unattainable idea of beauty that I create, and then disappointed when it inevitably crumbles?

I suggested that Tessa and I respond to this performance (because it was MY TURN to pick how we respond) by emailing a number of our past lovers and asking what insecurities or reasons they would list as to why our relationships failed. What do they feel was holding us back from actually connecting? Everyone at the table quickly responded that I was being too literal (again), and that the response was too intense. I am still not sure I agree.

So to respond to the wonderful performance, we decided instead to "gameify" the experience of trying to avoid one’s relationship insecurities. Tessa and I are going to play a modified version of Hasbro's Twister. Each of us will take three circular pieces of paper and write down insecurities/fears we have about relationships, and we will replace some of the colored Twister circles with those vulnerabilities. We have added vulnerability circles to the Twister spinner (ie “Left hand vulnerability”), and during game play we will each be allowed to touch the other’s insecurities, but not our own.

Here is what happened...

 

 

Tessa: It’s now the day after Twister. I have a large bruise on my thigh. So Eric and I have a few… uh… disagreements as to the flow of our post-show conversation on this one. While I concede that, for the previous show, I had been the one eating bacon and drinking celebratory hot toddies all day (but, being a paragon of responsible objectivity, had of course sobered up before the performance), this time it was Eric who had been drinking since 4pm. Make of that fact what you will. 

It WAS Eric’s turn to pick the response, and he did indeed want us to have excruciating conversations with our exes—but I disagree that the table jumped on him to veto that idea. He vetoed himself almost in the same breath as proposing it, and that’s about the point at which I got my usual wicked grin and hijacked the response with the idea to (again) mirror form in a pertinently absurd way by playing Twister. It wasn’t my fault that the rest of the table agreed that it is clearly more fun to play Twister than it is to email our exes survey questions about why everything went wrong.

Usually Beauty Fails opens with the cast of dancers milling about the stage like sprinters approaching a starting line. Their bodies crackle with the pacing restlessness of honed muscles held in an unnaturally long pause before purpose. Then they start moving. And my god they just destroy me. 

They dance the struggle between control and surrender, their bodies acknowledging the secret concession that sometimes strength yearns for nothing more than to give itself up to be held. 

The first duet in the piece fulcrums around a shifting pivot between neck and sternum. Two dancers windmill against each other, and each time it seems that one might fully leave the other’s orbit, they draw their partner back in by means of a hand clasped against the back of the neck.

The neck is a place of both vulnerability and power: The comforting entrapment of a mother cat transporting her kittens. The controlling snare of a wild animal captured by a looped noose. The warmly delicate indentation where we search for a pulse. The point at which we cut off air. The corridor between mind and body, between head and heart. 

The dancer obligingly reels back in, responds to the request of return by coming closer—only to be stopped and pushed away by a bracing palm flattened against the chest. The placement of the hand is patently on chest not breasts, and this demarcation is important. We know the cliché of marker points, know what it means when hands touch sexual signifiers: I enjoy you, I use you, I need you.

But there is something in the platonic disarmament of a palm placed against a sternum, fingers fanning out in response to the structures of bones rather than flesh, that creates a whispering honesty so intimate it aches. I know you, it says. 

I feel like I am witnessing a secret, and I find my hand rising unconsciously to my own throat. I am completely enveloped within the vignette: its revelations have named me complicit. 

—but let’s bring it back to Twister. Eric and I were both surprised at how perfectly the game functioned as a vehicle for conversation. I wanted to play Twister because it physically mirrors the complicated process of learning how to collaboratively inhabit space and move with a collective awareness of shared bodies. We added the presence of vulnerabilities to demonstrate that intangible concepts must be navigated as though they were physical spaces. 

When we initially decided that we would be allowed to touch each other’s vulnerabilities but not our own, I think we were being somewhat glib. But the act of turning our deepest vulnerabilities into words was a much more uncomfortable process than we had expected, and that prompted a discussion about how, while we can relate to other people’s vulnerabilities, we cannot feel the entrenched fear that comes with them. 

I want to go back to one other thing that Eric wrote. I was being hyperbolic when I said that I’d read The Great Gatsby 26 times; it’s probably more like fifteen. I wasn’t referencing any specific scene in the show, but rather was trying to say was that I felt that the message of Usually Beauty Fails—that we collapse beneath the weight of the love that we hold for the beauty of our own impossible illusions—is perfectly encapsulated by ending of The Great Gatsby. I’ll let it speak for itself: 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

For your entertainment, we wrote down the funniest one-liners that came up as we were playing Twister, and had our friend Michelle Penaloza read in “bad poet voice.” It’s really funny. You should watch it.

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