Fall Arts: How Pat Graney Builds Her Choreography

By excavating memory and emotion as a form of research.

Seattle has a tendency to produce choreographers who aren’t like anyone who came before them. Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris are probably the best known, but Pat Graney isn’t far behind. She’s been making dances since the 1970s; and in the dance world, where generations fly by like gnats, that’s a very long time.

Coming to Seattle in 1979, Graney landed in a dance community that was full of activity, with all kinds of newcomers bringing the energy of the dance boom with them. She found her cohort in the experimentalists who established On the Boards, which has offered a home for her work ever since. Like most young artists, she tried on multiple ideas, but some of her early interests still thread through her current work. Her primary values include language (both spoken and gestural communication), ritual activities, a keen eye for design, and a fondness for the unusual. You’ll see these all reflected in Girl Gods, which premieres next month.

Early on, interested in the works of Gertrude Stein, Graney began to develop a kind of movement equivalent to her non sequitur texts. Although she has made works that put the dancing in front, they don’t often showcase conventional dance vocabulary. In Colleen Ann (1986), she combined Irish step dance with American Sign Language to tell a story of accident and loss. In Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls (1986), she applied the pattern-making tools of postmodern dance to movements drawn from college drill teams. And in pieces like Seven/Uneven (1987) and Movement Meditation Practice (1996), she drew material from gymnastics and martial arts, exploring their physical virtuosity outside their traditional arenas. She seems to like showing us new possibilities for movement—See, this is dance, too.

Alongside the exploration of external skills, though, Graney investigates more internal territory, excavating memory and emotion as a form of research. The dance mainstream mostly turned away from the psychologically based dramas of the postwar period, when Martha Graham and company brought Freud and Jung to the stage. But Graney has, in a circuitous way, picked up some of those explorations and incorporated them as research for her works. That long preparatory process includes extensive self-reflection for her dancers as well as herself. “I just feel like I’m opening the channel and we’re all making this work,” she remarked in a 2010 interview. We don’t see most of that process in the finished product, but we feel it underlying the work. The mysterious resonance of works like Faith (1991), Sleep (1995), and Tattoo (2000)—revived at On the Boards as Triptych in 2010—is grounded in invented rituals and references to personal journeys.

Graney has collaborated with visual artists for many years, and those relationships have produced some remarkable images. (Who can forget the sand cascading onstage in Tattoo? Or the giant alligator in Sleep? Or the tableau vivant modeled on Caravaggio in Faith?) In 2005’s The Vivian Girls, based on the work of Henry Darger, his eerie little girls are projected on a backdrop while the stage is stacked with giant models of his books, almost becoming a jungle gym for Graney’s dancers.

Even more elaborate, House of Mind (2008) filled a vacant City Light repair shop with a labyrinth of halls and rooms, leading the audience through vignettes drawn from personal history (e.g., a child’s bedroom) or an imaginary landscape (a hallway lined with reports written by her detective father), ending in a kind of Alice in Wonderland apartment. Graney’s female cast enacted the daily life of a family: cooking, relaxing, eating a meal, but also clambering up the walls to walk on a ledge overhead.

Girl Gods now digs further into family relationships. Graney says that while House of Mind was about memory and forgetting, Girl Gods is about rage. She asks rhetorically, “How do women deal with rage? They stuff it under the rug.” In Girl Gods, that anger is expressed in a collection of solos—dancers in little black dresses, flailing on the ground—that alternate with scenes of domestic life where irritation lies just under the skin. Simple tasks, like stuffing a chicken or getting undressed, keep getting harder, the frustration compounding. Her dancers interviewed their mothers as part of the rehearsal process, asking about “women’s work” and socially prescribed gender roles. While Graney is frustrated that today’s young women are again fighting for the same rights their mothers thought they’d secured, she sees Girl Gods as part of the path toward what she calls “rebooting feminism.”

Graney now sees herself as more an installation artist than just a choreographer. Accordingly, Girl Gods is full of details—teapots full of sand, tiny chairs, baby dolls—that evoke a dream world or memory-scape. In a field where many dancemakers are finished after just a few works, Graney’s career is all about the process of building.


ON THE BOARDS 100 W. Roy St., 217-9888, ontheboards.org. $23–$25. 8 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 1–Sat., Oct. 3; 5 p.m. Sun., Oct. 4.

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