Dance Of Dreams -- `Sleep' Takes Choreographer Pat Graney Into Strange Worlds

"It's so hard to talk about dreams - people think it's just this crazy women's thing," says choreographer Pat Graney.

She's sitting in a local coffee shop, composed and alert, sipping tea. On this day the world premiere of "Sleep (making peace with the angels)," her first full-evening dance theater work in four years, is still two weeks off (it opens Thursday).

The piece combines the best of an "old" Graney work (step-dance, rip-snorting world music, tender tableaux of enjoined women) with daring new solo and duet material (a seven-minute "gesture language," death rituals). In preparation for her own rigorous dance performance in "Sleep" - her first foray onto the stage after a serious back injury several years ago - Graney has just finished up a Pilates-conditioning treatment at a nearby Queen Anne studio.

"I have always loved to sleep and dream," she says, explaining how she chose this theme for the new work. "I remember this thing I read when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It was this young girl talking to this man and he said, `What is the sweetest thing in the world?,' and she answered, `The sweetest thing in the world is sleep.'

"That has stayed with me all my life," Graney says. "I have really worked out and lived my life in dreams. They have been more powerful than reality most of my life. So for me to do something about that, even in a performance context, is really overpowering

for me."

Moments of strangeness

As if on cue, an impeccably dressed man comes through the doors, looks around the cluttered shop, then walks straight up to Graney.

"You wouldn't make a good marine, you know," he says.

It isn't the first moment of strangeness this morning. Earlier at her office, her Excel budget file mysteriously got merged in her computer with a text file about "Sleep," so that numerical figures and personal thoughts about the piece tangled together on her monitor. At this coffee shop, a set of magnetic tiles on the counter in front of Graney - a kind of instant poetry - were arranged in the phrase SLEEP WILL SUIT YOU when we arrived.

As we talk, one of the lights in the coffee shop flickers, casting dark shadows on the ceiling.

"This stuff happens all the time," Graney says, as her fortune-telling stranger walks away. "I'm used to it. After all this time working on this piece, every uncanny kind of coincidence that could have happened has happened."

A long journey

It has taken four years, a half-dozen new company members, 21 funding sources (including a Guggenheim fellowship and her 11th grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) and travels to Mexico, Germany, the Berkshires and Brazil to bring "Sleep" to the Moore this coming week.

At the center of this "trial-by-fire" creation period she spent two months in Mexico, where Graney interviewed and filmed small-town Mexican healers (curanderas). She focused on an 86-year-old Tlayacapan potter named Dona Felipa who makes sets of healing figurines that look like "animals with pajamas on," Graney says.

There was also a 40th birthday, an elaborate foray into new movement improvisation techniques inspired by sources ranging from family photos of her company members to a life-size piece by Idaho ceramic artist Marilyn Lysohir called "The Alligator's Wife" (an 18-foot alligator with a bride on its back).

She also used the romantic paintings of William Bourguereau as inspiration for "angel studies" ("We started them long before this whole angel craze," Graney says). "From a movement perspective," she explains, the studies sprang from "the challenge of (her 1991 work) `Faith,' and using this dead body weight, which I love, but taking that on to a certain kind of lightness."

Another "angel" informing the work is Graney's late father (to whom the piece is dedicated), who died in a tractor accident when she was 3 years old. One of the most profound moments of her creation of "Sleep" was the discovery of a succession of photographs of her father she'd never seen before. They record the fact that 40 years earlier her father chose to travel to a number of the same small Mexican towns Graney had just returned from. She also learned, for the first time, that his nickname was Angel. Creation by collaboration

"It's the most personal thing I've ever done," Graney says of the work, "although it's not autobiographically strictly about me."

It's about the rest of the company as well. Over the past four years, her all-female company - whose members now are Alison Cockrill, Robin Jennings, Saiko Kobayashi, Jean Landry, Amii LeGendre, Peggy Piacenza, Kim Root, and Kate Lounsbury - contributed. They brought in family snapshots, kept dream journals, developed movements for the work's "seven-minute gesture language" and created personal rituals on the subjects of womanhood, transition, and death.

"This was all about the performers taking a major role in creating the material, not just being directed by me," Graney explains. It "was really frightening for me as a director, because I thought, `OK, this is going to be some kind of collective and it's going to be, of course, awful.' It won't have a direction to it."

It didn't turn out that way.

"I loved the process, I loved making the piece," Graney says. "It has changed me as an artist, forever.

"By this last year, we just started to do stuff that I would say was very `out there.' "

With the photographs, she explains.

"What's your first childhood memory? What's your first movement experience? What are your personal rituals? Do you remember your personal rituals? Everyone was writing these things they used to do as kids, repetitive kind of neurotic things, and we started building on stuff like that."

It was a process that was "completely out of my control. That's terrifying. And it's great. That's where I wanted to go. I wanted to go someplace where I haven't been before."

Also contributing to a sense of uncharted territory is the melange of "world music" that accompanies the gorgeous, freakish scenarios of "Sleep." All the pivotal moments - a child's birthday, a wedding, a dinner party, a school play and a burial - are made searingly singular by musical selections that range from Russian folk to sacred harp music to Japanese pop from the '60s to the plaintive instrumentals of Ellen Fullmen, a musician who plays an 80-foot instrument by walking through it. Visiting "The Miracle Room"

For Graney, the heart of the strange tiers of "Sleep" is a section called "The Miracle Room." She describes this central section as "the inner place of the piece - it's where everything germinates and happens. It is actually taken from a place called the Miracle Room in a church in Bahia, Brazil," she explains. "That room is plastered from top to bottom with letters from relatives to San Bonfim to please heal their mother or whatever, and whatever body part needs to be healed is life-size in wax . . . hearts and heads and arms are all hanging from the ceiling, with these thousands of letters and pictures . . . It's a beautiful place of hope and miracles."

In the Miracle Room in "Sleep," Graney says, "there are all these portraits, you're in this place where you don't know where you are and all these really odd things are happening. People dip their hands into blue powder, they make these little clay figures . . . you're definitely in this other place . . . where symbol is the language. And that, to me, is what `Sleep' is about."

Graney plans to end the piece with her own death ritual. Though she's yet to stage it, she knows its shape: as crammed as a good dream.

"I had my childhood bed there, I had all these willow branches, I had all these pictures, and the dress, and music - all this stuff which is a journey I've taken. And where it leads me, to my family and back again, and where I will go." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Where to see `Sleep'

The Pat Graney Company in "Sleep (making peace with the angels)" opens at the Moore Theatre at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and continues through Dec. 2 ($17-$19; 325-7901).