Where to begin with choreographer Pat Graney? Maybe with her exterior: She grew up as the daughter of a Chicago detective, listened to "Crimson and Clover" over and over, and now wears jeans and sneakers with an unself-conscious grace that's hard to find in anyone of any age. She has big brown curls and a smile that hugs you like a favorite aunt. Her conversation walks a line between the hesitancy of a brilliant person who weighs every word and the directness of a wise person to whom you'd tell secrets and ask for advice.
Her dance pieces betray an unyielding imagination and dedication: If she wants to dump a cascade of sand on the stage or force her audience to walk through an installation or build a set made of books so large they dwarf the people dancing around and atop them, she will. That she has worked with women in prison (mostly in Washington State, but also in Brazil, Tokyo, and Dublin) should not be a surprise. That she was nominated for and received an American Masterpieces grant from the NEA shouldn't either.
Graney has achieved all this from Seattle, starting in 1981—an era when artists felt like they had to leave to find success. "Pat," said On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski, "has shown that you can live outside Metropolis and still have a dance career."
Pat Graney takes her time. It took her 10 years to finish her triptych Faith, Sleep, and Tattoo (1991 to 2001), three full-length dance pieces about women, both as individuals and as a community. Graney's choreography has a deep, slow sensuality that is more attuned to bodies with muscles and curves than to beanpole ballerinas (though she set work on Pacific Northwest Ballet as early as 1988), and she seems more interested in physical and psychological relationships than solo virtuosity. A 1992 New York Times review of Faith describes one such moment: A woman, "separated from the others, tugs at her tube [a dress] and hastily tries to rub imaginary cream into her face and body. She is uncomfortable in her uncomforting world and is stared at coolly by the others, ranged in a row behind her, in one of the dance's most powerful images." In another moment, one woman stands naked in a line of clothed women. Even when she's pointing our attention to an individual, Graney sets her in a social context.
Younger choreographers sometimes become lost in the particularities of individual movements and forget that they're working with an entire stage and a roomful of people watching, but Graney makes stage pictures (dancers, sets, costumes, lights) with the warmth and richness of a painter. Her brain is kin to Pina Bausch; her eyes to Caravaggio.
And her ears? Maybe David Byrne. Graney's sonic map stretches to the end of the known world and beyond. Her longtime composer/collaborator Amy Denio is an avant-garde jazz multi-instrumentalist who is heavily influenced by world music and has worked with Chuck D and KMFDM. (How's that for eclectic?) And they have no fear of pop. Watching them together at a rehearsal for House of Mind in 2008, laughing mischievously as they spiked the score with samples from Star Wars and Dune and doo-wop hits, was an object lesson in grown-up glee. Graney is that rarest and most valuable genius, whose work is relentlessly unconcerned with showing off its intelligence. (She brings that genius to her prison work—a project called Keeping the Faith—as well. Those pieces aren't second-class "outsider art," but powerful, full expressions. A dance piece at the Mission Creek Corrections Center in 2009 remains one of the more moving and visceral dance works I've ever seen.)
Putting Faith, Sleep, and Tattoo together has been a piece of luck—Graney was nominated for the NEA American Masterpieces grant at the same time that the National Performance Network started handing out money to remount classic productions in celebration of its 25-year anniversary. (She got some of that money, too.) And while a younger generation of dancers grew up in Graney's company, performing Tattoo and The Vivian Girls and House of Mind from Jacob's Pillow to Art Basel Miami Beach, younger audiences haven't had the chance to see her earliest, iconic works. Graney has put most of her old team back together, with Seattle-dance stalwarts KT Niehoff, Peggy Piacenza, and Amii Legendre, as well as Kim Root, back from a seven-year professorship at Wesleyan University. And, for Tattoo, Graney has brought back the famous Judy Jetson sound skirts—stiff lamp shades that flare from the waist and are electronically wired to amplify the sound of the movement.
What will audiences see in the Faith Triptych? Surreal, dreamlike tempos, women wearing red shoes, women watching each other coolly and leaning against each other languorously. There will be some nudity, some tattoos, and the Judy Jetson sound skirts. Throughout the Triptych, and Graney's work in general, is a feeling of soft power—the curve is stronger than the line.