All Fall Down -- Breaking Through To A New Dance Aesthetic

Your eyes are locked on eight female figures on a slippery wood floor. Half are wailing on saxophones while walking in slow straight robotic lines. The other half are crisscrossing the floor like sprinters, adroitly threading themselves between the sax players and each other. They flirt with collision. Instead, one by one the sprinters fall with heavy thuds, as if shot by snipers. Their momentum slides them across the wood, bodies frozen in tortured statues. The music stops. The performers evaluate, sip a drink, start over.

It is rehearsal at Dance Centre Seattle, a storefront studio on Capitol Hill. The few spectators have been absorbed by the opening sections of "Sax House," the latest creation of Seattle choreographer Pat Graney, who has been standing at the side, hands on hips, scrutinizing her troupe like a coach. She gives instructions with authority but softens it by being silly. "I am the princess,"she says, faking a little-girl voice and doing a tiny curtsy.

Most of the spectators have come to watch Graney, who dances in some of the sets, and who is said to be the latest addition to a notable line of distinguished choreographers coming out of the Northwest, choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Robert Joffrey, Trisha Brown and Mark Morris. Today, Graney and company are touring more and drawing larger audiences than any other Seattle-based modern dance company. Nationally, critics say, the award-winning Graney is someone to watch. Reviewers in New York, Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco have described her work as wildly original! Rambunctiously eclectic! Utterly captivating! Genius! - hyped-up hyperbole that means little to those, like you, who know next to nothing about modern dance.

The only words to surface in your mind during rehearsal are the befuddled questions of the uninitiated: What's the intent of all the frenetic movement? How should one interpret the funereal drone of the saxophones? How should one feel when the dancers collapse on the hardwood floor - doesn't that hurt? What, for God's sake, does it all mean?

These are precisely the wrong questions to ask in the world of modern dance, and, it turns out, in the world of Pat Graney. Both worlds, you come to learn, can be elusive if you approach them too directly, too logically.

After rehearsal you meet the choreographer. She is a young 36, of medium height with the battered body of an athlete. Braces, pads and various supports gird a bad back, a sore ankle, bruised knees and an assortment of aches and pains. She has powerful legs and a torso made for rough-and-tumble acrobatics. No wispy ballerina she. "Athlete goddess" is how one overexcited critic described her. She wears size 9 Nike cross-trainers. She has freckles on her back. Her hair is military short, sandy blond-recently-turned-foxfire red. There is a Midwestern wholesomeness about her face. She has smallish eyes that seem to get darker brown the longer you talk to her. She is gregarious bordering on hyper, sometimes talking in solid blocks of run-on sentences, with no periods, few commas, multiple and lengthy asides and digressions. Nothing about her manner is linear. "Am I being obtuse?" is her frequent refrain.

Graciously, she agrees to spend a few days walking you through a few informal rules on How To Watch Modern Dance, and along the way, to share a bit about herself. It turns out that these "rules" are the same ones that have defined this artist whose life and dance are anything but logical.

Rule No. 1: There are no rules.

Modern dance, from its birth in the early 1900s, has been a rebellion against the centuries-old structures of ballet. The moderns rejected obligatory turnout and pointed feet, rejected the idea of keeping torsos still while only moving arms and legs, rejected the singular emphasis on grace, flow and curves, as well as the deification of the willow-figured ballerina. In modern dance, pretty much anything goes, from dances that appear classical to dances that don't even resemble dances in any traditional sense.

"There is no manual," says Graney, who doesn't fit neatly into any category or movement. Old-fashioned-Neo-Catholic-Buddhist-Free-thinking-Post-modernist-Avan t garde is as good as any label.

In "Sax House," which premiered this fall to packed audiences in Meany Theater at the University of Washington, she includes elegant classical turns in the middle of an otherwise frenetically unclassical routine that uses sax players as moving props and dancers as sprinters. The companion piece, "Jesus Loves The Little Cowgirls," integrates calf-roping as a prelude to a slapstick Western-style shootout among cowgirls dressed in twirly cheerleader skirts. Over the years she has worked with gymnasts, drill teams and rope-jumpers. She has incorporated Irish step dancing, country Western dance, sign language and water ballet. In an early piece called "Swallow," she ends with her dancers floating in tanks of water.

Her work is often marked by running, leaping and falling, usually done at a wildly aerobic pace, but she is as unpredictable as she is versatile. Her critically acclaimed "Faith," inspired by the religious paintings of Caravaggio, is hypnotic in its slow, dreamy pace. She can be obscure or downright corny, darkly meditative or playful as a child in a romper room, although a certain subtle melancholy seems to run through many of her pieces. She explores themes as universal as heaven and hell, judgment, sexuality, love and exploitation, all incarnated with details from her own past and psyche.

If Graney's work is wide-ranging and eclectic, it is because she is wide-ranging and eclectic. Born into a Catholic family - "all Irish-Catholic cops," she says - she is now a Buddhist who still wears her St. Theresa medallion around her neck. She is a closet musician and intellectual, a Jungian, a would-be writer, a devout Trekkie, a feminist and lesbian, a hopeless romantic. Inside her run-down, rented Capitol Hill house, where she lives alone with her cat Paddy, are exactly three videocassette movies which she owns: "E.T.," "I Heard The Mermaids Call My Name" and "Star Wars." She has watched "Star Wars" no less than 15 times and has memorized all of Luke Skywalker's dialogue.

"Growing up, I loved anything that wasn't real," says Graney. She still has a penchant for alternative realities. "People do a lot of things to survive. That's what I did. It's kind of messed up in a way, but it's OK, too."

The way she tells it, her childhood was without many rules. Her father died when she was 3, and the four children (she was second-oldest) were basically raised by their mother, a self-taught intellectual "very involved in the bohemian scene." The family moved from Chicago, where Graney was born, to Florida, where she spent most of her childhood, and where her mother ran a bookstore out of their home, Parnasus Books & Print.

Constantly surrounded by literati, musicians and artists who frequented the bookstore, Graney read voraciously and even penned a play called "Egypt's Unknown Discoveries." Among peers, she was a perennial outcast, too awkward and reflective to feel at home anywhere. "My sister and I imagined ourselves alone our whole lives," she says. "I told her, `We're going to herd sheep in Ireland.' "

At 16, armed with only her exuberance and a bookworm's view of the world, she left home, worked odd jobs, hitchhiked to Mexico and all corners of the U.S., dodging perils at every turn, including a "near-rape" experience in Texas. After a couple of years indulging her wanderlust, she found herself along with her sister at The Evergreen State College near Olympia.

"We heard they didn't have grades there. How bizarre!" she says. "So we hitchhiked out. I washed dishes and audited classes for the first quarter. I got involved in dance and the first thing my teacher told me was that I was never going to be a dancer."

Rule No. 2: Don't give up too easily.

Graney persisted. By her own account, she was limited as a dancer, although she had been enamored with it since the fifth grade, when she took her first formal lessons. She says she was too fat, her legs too short to be a great dancer. She kept at it anyway. Evergreen didn't have a formal dance program, so she applied to the University of Utah's dance program. She didn't get in. She was crushed.

She persisted. Eventually she was accepted at the University of Arizona. After graduating in 1979, her classmates were hired for dance jobs but she wasn't. Besides her physical limitations, she was "too intimidated, and more intellectual," she says. "I was more interested in choreographing."

She moved to Seattle in 1980, attracted by the burgeoning modern-dance scene, which was boosted by the presence here of the nationally renowned Bill Evans Company. Graney lived the starving-artist lifestyle while experimenting with choreographic styles at small weekend showcases - the kind where only friends, and friends of friends, attended. She recalls her earliest efforts, in which she explored the works of Gertrude Stein, and in which written text was used in place of musical scores. In one piece, Graney wrapped the Stein character in a red velvet gown, had her sit on the floor and sing opera in fast-forward while pitching eggs into a huge blown-glass container.

"In the beginning I would invite all these people to come, and nobody would say anything to me afterward," Graney says. `Nothing. It was like they didn't even go. It was terrible."

Graney persisted. And while many reacted to her work with bewilderment or advice - "Maybe you should put a few turns in there . . ." - some began sensing that Graney was an innovator who would someday make a mark.

Or stir up controversy. Recently, Graney and company were scheduled to perform "Faith" in Helena, Mont., where officials and residents at the time were debating a proposed nude-dancing ban. "Faith" includes a slow, surreal nude section. Faced with the possibility of citizen protest and even arrest, Graney loaded up the van and headed west anyway. The performance went on without a hitch and Graney left town with a slew of new fans.

"She takes risks," says A.C. Petersen, a Seattle choreographer on the rise who worked as a dancer with Graney in the early '80s. "A lot of people worry about whether it will be popular or accepted; Pat doesn't. She gets this wild idea and just goes for it. The result has always been work that's interesting to watch."

In the mid-'80s, inspired by a gymnast friend, Graney discovered weight-lifting, and her art and body would never be the same. "It was bizarre!" she says. "All of a sudden I had muscles. I mean my whole upper body changed. I went from a pear body to a more athletic body. And having always felt fat and awful-looking, I just thought it was the most empowering thing I'd ever done."

Artistically, the highly physical style that has become her trademark was born. She began to draw on the kinetics of gymnastics, culminating in the creation of "Seven/Uneven," an integration of gymnastics and dance first performed at Marymoor Park as part of King County's Performa '87.

As her work expanded, so did her credits. She earned several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, commissions from groups such as the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the American Choreographers Award, the equivalent of an Academy Award for choreographers. It's given to only five artists nationwide every year. Her company, formed in 1988, has performed in Europe, Japan and all over North America. The next stop will be Philadelphia, Jan. 16-18, to perform "Faith."

"Nationally, Pat has become an important artist," says David White, executive director of New York City's Dance Theatre Workshop, a modern-dance showcase for nearly 20 years. "She has a distinct voice, highly articulate and a powerful presence on stage. When the subject is experimental choreography, she is one of the first names that come up."

It has taken moxie and persistence, the kind you need a little bit of to enjoy even just watching modern dance. Going to a dance performance, Graney says, is like "halfway between going to a sporting event and going to a museum." The first time you may not know what's going on, you may feel lost and out of place. But after a few more shows, you start becoming familiar with the structure, the subtleties, the feel for the action, what to expect and not to expect. And given more time, you start picking up tidbits about the dancers and choreographers, and about the history of modern dance, helping you understand references to certain movements and traditions.

The more you know, the more involved you can become - like those baseball fanatics who know every player, team and statistic in the history of the sport. To them there is hardly a movement on the field that isn't somehow significant. As spectators of modern dance, you can be engaged in a similar way.

A typical Graney piece can be viewed on a purely visual level, but there are deeper levels for those able to unearth them. "Jesus Loves The Little Cowgirls," with its twangy musical score, Graney says, could be seen as a rootin' tootin' cowgirl soap opera or as a frantic philosophical parody of sexual stereotypes. "Sax House" could be a sassy saxophone romp or an abstract study of blurred gender distinctions - a recurring motif in her work. Both could be simply enjoyable, or for some, transformative, the way art can bring revelation or epiphany.

Even individual movements can have multiple interpretations. Falling to the floor - because of a gunshot, because somebody is flung down, because somebody trips, or just plain because - is a trademark Graney movement. The falling can be a slapstick device or it can be more: "There's something about the body falling to the floor that pushes an edge of violence that I like," Graney says. "When you're falling, you're either dying, which is sad, or you're sleeping, which is beautiful. In either case, at some point in the fall, you lose control. It's like a total surrender."

Having said this, Graney reassures you that you shouldn't worry about perceiving all levels. A certain acuity will come with time. Meanwhile, it's important to familiarize yourself with the next rule, which could liberate you from the largest knot in a typically logic-bogged brain.

Rule No. 3: Don't try too hard to make sense of everything. Or the shorter version: Relax.

"Just go and don't be afraid that there's a hidden meaning behind every single thing or that something weird is going on that you don't understand," Graney says. "Most of the time it's just what you see. There are always different layers that I'm working on, but most of it is just fun to watch because it's so athletic and exciting. You shouldn't try to figure it all out. Just experience it."

Once you've subdued the need to understand everything, you open yourself up to images and sensations that don't always translate into words, but into surges of emotion, a quickening of the heartbeat, sweat on the brow, a knot in the gut, a sob or a hyena cackle in the dark.

There is a certain open-endedness to Graney's work, and to many modern- dance pieces, that allows viewers to come away with their own conclusions, so that a thousand people watching "Sax House" will generate a thousand different responses. After the premiere of "Sax House" at Meany Theater, one fan, 23-year-old Alan Reade, exclaimed, "It was great! It was astounding! It was like `2001: A Space Odyssey' "!

It's also OK to admit that you weren't particularly moved by it if that's the case. Graney says one helpful hint, however, is to leave behind your television mentality, which compels you to expect that all tensions and loose ends be miraculously resolved within a half-hour. A good dance performance, like a good painting, will always lead to a larger sense of mystery.

Graney's own life, in a way, is an ongoing mystery - one that she has been trying to unravel through counseling once a week for the last decade. Nothing urgent, she says, "just a method of personal discovery."

She accepts as a basic truth that not everything is supposed to make sense, and that in fact contradictions are all part of the package of living. How is it that someone as wayward and free-floating as she was could end up a frontrunner in such a fiercely competitive field? And how is it that even the best modern dancers struggle like paupers? Graney this year will make about $30,000, assuming all her grants come through, and much of the money will go toward old debts incurred in past productions. Each of the seven dancers in her all-female company make $100 a week. All of them supplement this by teaching or working part-time jobs. All of them pay their own medical insurance.

"It's awful," says Graney, who spends much of her free time writing grants and conducting the business of her dance company. "People want to have arts in their community, they're proud of what's already there, but most people don't know the costs involved."

She dispels notions of glamour in her life. Much of it, she says, is just hard work, living day to day like most people. She rehearses five times a week, gets her back adjusted now and then, tends to her cat, catches an episode of "Star Trek" in between writing grant proposals. She putters in the garden when she can. Meditates when she can. Lately, she's been too engrossed in work to have any kind of meaningful social life. "I feel very single right now," she says. Once in a while, someone will approach her on the street or in a cafe to praise her work. That's always nice. In addition to those little lifts, Graney seems to have a built-in mechanism that allows her to remain buoyant through it all.

Rule No. 4: Laugh if you think it's funny.

There's one set in "Sax House" where Graney and dancer Deb King perform a kind of solo courtship dance, all very cool in their androgynous black formals, and very corny. They are parodies of characters in bad Italian movies. They make exaggerated smoking gestures and strike ultra-vain, loungy poses. At one point, King flings Graney to the ground. King approaches Graney. Graney reaches out. King swings around and walks away - a cool rejection.

For some reason the audience always laughs here. Graney didn't intend it to be funny, but the characters are so pathetic and so sad, and the moment of rejection so familiar, that viewers can't help but laugh.

It's part of the spontaneous dynamic that Graney likes to encourage: Laugh if you think it's funny. Trust your own instincts. Weep if you are so called. Get angry or excited. Do something! React! Extreme emotions always seem to bubble just below the surface of Graney's pieces, as they do in her own life. Her sensibilities are such that she seems always on the verge of laughing or crying, and she doesn't hide it. She doesn't shy from upheaval. She's not afraid to follow what flows out of her, or what calls out to her from the outside.

Lately she's been thinking about freedom.

The last year has been a blur of activity, as her company anchored the local On The Boards' New Performance Series, then packed off to Massachusetts to perform "Faith" at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and to New York for a preview of "Sax House," then back to Seattle for Bumbershoot and the opening of the Allegro! Dance Festival, followed by the trip to Montana. Then it's Philadelphia in January, a teaching stint in Ohio in the spring, and back to New York in July - all while creating a new work to premiere in the fall of `92.

"I can feel my own expectations and pressures, and other people's expectations and pressures, which happens when you get a larger audience," she says. "Then I think about the first time I was in Mexico, and I thought, `This is freedom and it's wonderful.' I need to rediscover that about myself. I want to go to the desert because it gives me a sense of space in my mind, like it vacuums out my head, and I can go there and see a different kind of light."

A trip to the desert, she says, is forthcoming.

As for way down the road, she wants to continue choreographing and dancing as long as she can. She wants to teach, and someday maybe write creatively. Chances are she will fall into the next phase of life the way she fell into her current one - with exuberance but not much planning, and with persistence that comes from some personal vision of faith.

Graney has kept a dream journal for 12 years. Out of it she describes one dream that came to her during the time she was working on "Faith":

She is on this anthropological research team, and they go to a faraway place with a great square created by a culture that had been dead a long time. In the middle of the square is a gargantuan structure, a humanesque figure made of pieces of metal all glopped together. It is the size of a mountain. Up close they discover that the filigree of this figure is made up of billions of small articles, such as clothing, food, insect wings, pieces of furniture and unidentifiable knickknacks, everything that covered the span of their culture.

"It was what that culture had left behind, and their idea of faith wasn't like a religious idea, it was about bringing together all that they had loved and cried about and lost, about families and traditions and things they had written about. So when they spoke the word "faith," it was like a memory of millions of years of living, and what was communicated through the fabric of this being was survival, passion, love.

"Am I being obtuse?"

Graney admits it's a difficult dream to translate, but the essence of it, she says, is a source of strength and hope for her nonetheless. In some ways, her philosophy of dreams is also the best instruction on how to watch dance.

"You have to keep your dream journal by the bed, and when you get up, you turn over and write down a few sentences. You have to do it right away because the way your waking mind is and the way your mind is an hour later are very different. Your mind an hour later will try to make sense of it, and they're not made to be made sense of. That's not the language of dreams. The key is to let your waking mind have a chance at it first."

One long continuous dream is what "Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls" feels like. It has the playfulness of a dream. The action is so fast it seems to blur like a dream, what with all these cowgirls in twirly orange cheerleader skirts running around, shooting and dying at a frenetic clip. Bullets fly like rain. Cowgirls lasso one another in love relationships and then throw each other to the floor like empty packages of tobacco. This is one motif that emerges time and again in Graney's pieces: two people coming together for a moment in bliss, or contemplating bliss, and then breaking apart. Coming together, breaking apart. If there is humor in this, it has its roots in the knowledge of a certain loneliness.

"Cowgirls" ends with Graney alone on stage under one lonely spotlight. A mournful, lovesick Patsy Cline song is playing. Graney, on her knees, twirly skirt resting on her thighs, is performing sign language toward the audience. She puts body and soul into each gesture, her dark eyes trying to communicate something incommunicable from somewhere deep inside her, something that even she doesn't fully understand. And if all goes well, something in you responds, moves to another place. At the end, when the lights fade to black, you find that you and everyone else in the audience has fallen silent. For Graney, it is the best of moments.