Pat Graney's Dance with Darger

by Bret Fetzer

"Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls."

Thus writes Henry Darger. After Darger's death in 1973, his landlord discovered a 15,145-page epic book, accompanied by more than 300 illustrations, called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which has gradually led to the possibly schizophrenic Darger being proclaimed by many as the most important "outsider artist" of the 20th century. The multivolume narrative describes a civil war on an unnamed planet 1,000 times larger than Earth (Earth is, in fact, one of its moons), in which the Vivian Girls, seven blond princesses from ages 5 to 7, fight the child-enslaving Glandelinians in order to make their world utterly Catholic. Some of the illustrations depict the Vivian Girls frolicking in idyllic gardens; others depict the strangling, torture, and crucifixion of young girls by adult men in American Civil War uniforms. Darger's art mixes astonishing landscapes with human figures either cut or traced from magazines; the resulting collages have the familiarity of advertising and the dislocation of surrealism.

Naturally, choreographer Pat Graney took one look at Darger's work and decided to create a dance from it. "I take a lot of inspiration from visual art," Graney said at a recent preview of The Vivian Girls, her new work. It doesn't literally follow Darger's story (there are no crucifixions or stranglings); instead, Graney focuses on translating the Girls from their flat and brightly colored world into moving, three-dimensional life. She doesn't think Darger would like the dance, even though it's visually faithful to his art; not only are the costumes exact replicas of the short, fetishistically innocent dresses of the Vivian Girls, the dancers are also adorned--just like Darger's girls--with hairless, preadolescent penises.

Such a literal take on Darger's fantasia may initially seem redundant or unimaginative, but these dresses and adornments are surprisingly potent. After looking at projections of Darger's watercolors, the sight of these outfits palpably evokes Darger's universe; your mind fills out the stage as the dancers hop and gyrate in the often askew, off-kilter movement that Graney has created in collaboration with her dancers. In addition, the music for the piece is an intriguing collaboration between experimental-minded composer Amy Denio and traditional Celtic fiddler Martin Hayes. Graney showed only a few snippets of The Vivian Girls, but the piece promises to be beautiful indeed.

In other theater news, the Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival has officially decided to declare bankruptcy, having been unable to raise the funds needed to pay off its debts, including money owed to numerous fringe theater companies who performed in the 2003 festival. SFTF expressed support for the artists and for efforts to raise money and organize a future festival.