In a 5,000 square-foot warehouse in South Lake Union, choreographer Pat Graney is rehearsing her new piece, House of Mind. In front of her, on the part of the flat concrete floor designated as the stage, five dancers in short skirts, kneesocks, and high heels sit in scarred armchairs that look like they've been dragged out of an ancient British pub. Her collaborators hover behind her—architect David Traylor, composer Amy Denio, and a slim technical director covered in tattoos named ilvs (pronounced "Elvis").
Over the past few weeks, Graney and her collaborators have filled this empty warehouse with walls and furniture, transforming it into a fractured memory of Graney's childhood home: a long, narrow room for her father, wallpapered with old police reports he'd filed while working as a Chicago detective; a bathtub (in which someone will soak before the performance); an oven (in which someone will bake a cake during the performance); a monochromatic "memory room" where audience members can see a gray table, gray clock, and gray carpet through grubby glass panes; a wall of books; a closet full of gigantic dresses; a mosaic of house keys; a child's room with a monster under the bed; a wall made of 300 pounds of white mother-of-pearl buttons with water cascading over them into a trough; a larger wall made of the cupboards people use to store miniatures, filled with objects from Graney's private collection—tiny horses, shoes, thimbles, chairs.
The effect is overwhelming and evocative, riding the tension between the specific and the archetypal: Graney's childhood memories versus yours. "It's personal," she says, "but shouldn't be so personal that it's inaccessible."
The warehouse, which Seattle City Light once used to repair its streetcars—and Implied Violence used for its triptych Our Summary in Sequence last summer—has become a fractured labyrinth of memory and meaning. Graney will add additional layers with video projections: giant goldfish, a person riding a bicycle, and a naked woman slowly falling from the ceiling who disappears behind a plush, dusty couch. And, of course, dancers.
"Let's try it with 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight,'" Graney says to the room in general. Denio cues the track—a-wimoweh, a-wimoweh—and the five dancers begin contorting in their chairs. They cross their legs, slouch, twist, high-kick, hold themselves up by their arms, and use their chairs for everything except sitting. The choreography is delightful, like a lighthearted acrobatic routine. Everyone in the room howls with laughter, but Graney doesn't think the song fits. "I love the rhythm, but anything too rhythmic overpowers it," she says. "Let's try my mother."
Denio cues another track. It's Graney's mother discussing her memory loss (Alzheimer's runs in the family and killed Graney's aunt): "How can you have an idea of memory loss when you're not conscious of losing your memory?" the older woman asks earnestly, changing the mood entirely. The choreography that looked so playful now seems anxious and fidgety, like five iterations of a single person who can't get comfortable.
Graney doesn't seem entirely satisfied with this either and walks to the technical booth to confer. While she's away, one of the dancers, Jodi Kuehner, sneaks over to whisper in my ear: "Can I put in my two cents? I just hope that people get how brilliant Pat's mind is—so quick, so fast and crazy and imaginative. She'll just make up songs and stories. It's like she lives in that movie Pan's Labyrinth, part reality and part this whole other world."
Kuehner wants people in general to be as awestruck by Graney as she is. People are. Graney moved to Seattle in 1979 and has made 50 dances (one with 150 martial artists, another about werewolf murders, another about Raymond Carver). She's won a dozen fellowships from the NEA, one from the Guggenheim Foundation, and this year's Herb Alpert Foundation award (for $75,000). Her company has toured in England, Scotland, Japan, Germany, Singapore, Chile, and Brazil. She also works in the women's prison near Gig Harbor, helping the inmates make dances and literary anthologies. Her dances are uncommonly stimulating. For Graney, dance is not an end in itself, but a means to an idea.
She makes a new piece about every three years, which is too long by half. Her last work, The Vivian Girls, set dance to the disturbingly obsessive drawings of Henry Darger, the lonely Catholic janitor who painted a 15,000-page manuscript (discovered after he died) about a slave rebellion led by little girls with penises. As a composition, The Vivian Girls was the dance equivalent of heavy metal—technically virtuosic (light-footed dancers playing artful hopscotch and flitting about on pointe), dense and layered (slides of Darger's paintings, gigantic books looming over the dancers who were dressed like identical girls in black bob wigs and cream-colored dresses), and emotionally heavy (the slave girls' torture and execution, Darger's sexualization of the children).
Graney's first dances sprang from writing by Gertrude Stein and Julio Cortázar—who are also heavy-metal writers insofar as they play with technical virtuosity, layers, density, and emotional weight. "They are heavily structured and also surreal," Graney says. "As a formalist, I like that."
House of Mind deploys the same combination of structure and surrealism. It begins with one dancer—in a short skirt and kneesocks—walking complicated patterns across the floor, with quick turns like she's tracing the perimeter of an irregularly shaped star. Then another, upstage, doing the same thing. Then another, walking down stairs from a catwalk, and another, opening and closing doors in a small room built high over the stage. The sound clips come from Graney's mother, Stars Wars, Dune, and snippets of music from her childhood ("Crimson and Clover," "White Rabbit," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"). The scenes are fundamentally domestic: dancers read, play house on an Oriental carpet, bake a cake, take off their pants and eat a snack of cheese and tomato. But they are fundamentally fractured, like the complicated geometry the dancers follow when walking from one side of the stage to another.
"The patterns are very arcane and architectural," Graney says, "but it should look simple. This isn't about saying 'we're so smart.' I don't really care about that."
She turns back to her dancers. "Let's try it again," she says. The dancers resume their armchair acrobatics while the voice of Darth Vader, from Star Wars, pipes over the speakers: "I find your lack of faith disturbing."
Graney nods and smiles.