In artist Henry Darger’s disturbing, surreal world, rich turbulent landscapes surround cookie-cutter girls—who are crucified, eviscerated and hung, often transgendered and sometimes half-human and half-animal—fighting fantastic foes. Seattle choreographer Pat Graney brings life to the inner turmoil and mysterious aura of the reclusive “outsider” artist and his opus by evoking some of the same curiously ordered pandemonium from her five female dancers.
A haunting, lullaby score by Amy Denio and Martin Hayes, mingling with children’s voices and the shifting visual design, including projections of Darger’s vibrant, almost overwhelming watercolor collages, helps Graney evoke the artist’s world. Clumsy walking, girlish games turning darker as they quicken, wild limbs and heads and repeated hand signals all hint at some evolving, furtive language at once innocent and complex, but eternally unknowable.
In the first act, the dancers, dressed like little girl dolls, climb, crawl and tumble on a set of oversized books, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Darger’s crowded workspace. In act two, the girls are more distinctive, and dressed in the bright colors of the artist’s palette. Setting upon the Vivian girls are Darger’s butterflies, wearing point shoes and wings, a means to flee the horrors. These alien angels—strangely sexualized in their painted presentation—move in knock-kneed fashion throughout the work, their wings adorning but unworkable. By the end of the 75-minute piece, the books onstage are normal size as if to suggest the girls have indeed, escaped to a better life outside the pages of Darger’s voluminous manuscript, which is entitled “The Story of the Vivian girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.”
Darger used the girls to free his mind. It is as if Graney has created a dance intended to free these imagined girls from the violent habitat of their maker’s volatile unconscious, the psychological maelstrom from which they were born.