Define rage. Have you ever experienced pure rage? How did you express it? How was anger expressed in your family? These are the questions longtime local choreographer Pat Graney is asking five female dancers to explore in her new piece, Girl Gods. Even more daringly, she’s requesting that they ask the same questions of their mothers—and record the answers, which will be used in the score (by acclaimed Seattle composer Amy Denio). In early August, 24 weeks into the 32-week rehearsal schedule, none of the dancers had initiated those maternal conversations yet.
“Women and rage is a tall order,” Graney says, laughing. Compact, with an intense gaze, Graney laughs a lot during rehearsal. She’s warm with her dancers, sometimes calling them “doll,” 1950s-waitress style, and encouraging them to share their ideas for the piece. Now 59, she has been creating dance since 1980 and founded her company in 1990. She’s led creativity and performance workshops for women in prison since 1992, and has never shied away from feminist issues in her work. Previous pieces have dealt with body image, domesticity, and dress and adornment (including a notable obsession with girlish and ladylike shoes).
This piece poses a feminist question at the ancestral level. “It’s about generations of rage,” Graney says, “and what women are allowed to be enraged about.” She is dedicating the work to her mother, a former bookseller who died last year after contending with Alzheimer’s disease. (Graney’s previous work, House of Mind, featured a video segment of her ailing mother explaining how a memory is a thing that can be lost.) “Generations of women were not able to express rage,” Graney says. “But there was a simmering beneath. They just stuffed it away.”
A great many things appear to be stuffed away on the set (designed by Holly Batt), where the back wall is lined with towering, teetering stacks of cardboard boxes. They have the veneer of stark, modern orderliness, but their seemingly haphazard placement speaks to things shoved aside quickly, filed for later. Sometimes black sand spills out of the boxes, suggesting rage compressed like bituminous coal.
But the piece isn’t relentlessly bleak; at times, it’s hilarious. “It can’t just be depressing,” Graney says. “It has to go somewhere.” She’s a quick wit, and her work almost always has humorous elements. In Girl Gods, these moments often arrive in the form of vignettes developed by each of the dancers in accordance with their own experience of anger. “The rage solos,” Graney knowingly calls them. Dancer Jenny May Peterson gets undressed upside down. Sara Jinks stuffs a turkey with alarming vigor. Jody Kuehner jams her impossibly long limbs into girl-sized clothing. And Sruti Desai shoves Hot Tamales candies into her mouth until they bleed out and into the lap of her pristine white dress. That last one is classic Graney. The absurd amount of candy starts out as funny—it had a work-in-progress audience howling—and then it turns into something else, about swallowing and choking and regurgitating, and the audience gets very, very quiet.
Graney developed the other choreography in Girl Gods in a way that reflects her deep thinking about dance. Instead of trying to make up movement, she says, she wanted it to be more arbitrary, less weighted. She made a Pinterest board of photos of people in exuberant moments: among them, Elvis Presley dancing, a child stomping in a puddle, Chubby Checker doing the Twist, Josephine Baker doing the Charleston, Isabella Rossellini gesturing in a chair. She selected 50 pictures, printed them out and had her dancers pick 10 each. She then instructed them to string a dance sequence together using only the frozen moment pictured, with no extraneous movement in between. “This way it tells a story, but it’s not so pedantic,” she explains.
The dancers had to learn their own sequence, then each other’s, then string them all together. But Graney didn’t want them to get too comfortable with the 50 movements, so next, she had them pair the leg position in one photo with the arm position in another. “Talk about anger,” one of them quipped, recalling the process. Once the dancers knew the 50 movements inside and out, Graney had them shift from vertical to horizontal, meaning they had to dance the same choreography while lying on the floor.
When she revealed this mad science at the spring work-in-progress performance, people laughed at the ridiculous complexity, especially when the dancers moved onto the floor; the grown women appeared to be having carefully orchestrated tantrums. Graney asked Peterson to demonstrate what it looks like when they “add vocalization” to the horizontal sequence. The hall fell silent except for the violent clatter of T-strap heels on the floor and the ripping sound of female screams.
“Pat wants us to let go with the vocalizing,” Kuehner says. “It’s hard. There’s something about it that’s ugly—that true voice coming out. But when I did it, the release was so great!” Touching her fingers to her throat, Peterson adds, “Vocalizing is vulnerable. Opening that up is a Pandora’s box.”
The slow creak of that lid is what gets Graney excited. Digging boxes out of the basement. Shaking out the contents. “You’re bringing something out and don’t know exactly what it is yet,” she says. “We’re excavating our own history.”
Girl Gods. 10/1–10/4. Times and prices vary. On the Boards, 100 W Roy St.; 206.217.9888; ontheboards.org