Graney brings artist's obsessive images to life in 'Vivian girls'

Choreographer Pat Graney stands in front of a vividly colored projection of a painting featuring curly-haired children that look like they stepped down from an early Campbell's Soup can or a Morton Salt label. These innocent-appearing kids are the subject of outsider artist Henry Darger's obsessive paintings and collages and the inspiration for Graney's new dance-theater piece, "the Vivian girls," which premieres at the Moore Theatre tonight.

Graney, 49, her red hair swept into a long ponytail, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet during an open rehearsal last week, looked a little like one of the Vivian girls herself.

"When I first saw these Darger images, I just thought, these are me. I have to do something with these. I have to find out more about this artist," Graney said.

Darger was a recluse who created beautiful and disturbing collages using illustrations of little girls from '30s and '40s advertisements. He pasted the girls into colorful painted backgrounds and surrounded them with fantasy figures, militia men and winged-boy-girl creatures who alternately torture them or help them. Darger's detailed Tolkien-esque fantasy about these figures and their universe was spelled out in more than 15,000 pages of single-spaced typed text discovered by photographer Nathan Lerner in Darger's cluttered Chicago apartment after his death in 1973.

"These images are so beautiful, but some of them can also be incredibly graphic and pretty gross, where the Vivian girls are getting eviscerated or shot at by the military guys," Graney said. "For me it's about survival, about the way some people survive despite severe psychological trauma and some people don't."

Graney sees several connections between Darger's and her own art and personal history. Her world-renowned choreography, including the trilogy, "Faith," "Sleep" and "Tattoo," uses a process that, like Darger's, involves creating detailed fantasies and generating much written material (in collaboration with her dancers) in order to back up the visual and movement imagery. Like Darger, Graney is originally from Chicago where her father, a police detective, died in a violent accident when she was 3.

The misleadingly innocent images of the Vivian girls, who survive violence and are also capable of it, remind Graney of the often violent childhoods of the imprisoned women with whom she has worked closely through her Keeping the Faith Project since 1992. The prisoners bring their own stories and artwork into the choreography she creates in the prisons.

"The way they'll talk about situations they are writing about for the first time, situations that are so horrible and so violent and graphic, and they read it as if nothing were wrong, as if they were describing making pancakes. It's disturbing, but here they are, they're writing about it, they've survived it. I find this triumph of the human spirit stuff pretty amazing."

While her prison choreography helps women whose childhoods were interrupted by violence discover a sense of innocence and play, in "the Vivian girls" the children themselves can be capable of violence. "Originally I was thinking of including some of the speeches from the women in prison," Graney said. Although she chose not to, that experience is still very much part of the vision of the piece.

The emphasis in "the Vivian girls," like much of Graney's choreography, is on evoking a richly textured series of images more than on physical movement. Her dances can be erotic, frightening, ritualistic and dreamy and, at the same time, very playful and full of joy. The images that linger are often scenic, a pelting rain of rice or a snowstorm of sand, effects that require close collaborations with other artists. In this case, she's incorporated Ben Geffen's lighting, set design by Bob and Colleen Bonniol, music by composer Amy Denio (who works with Irish fiddler Martin Hayes) and costumes by Frances Kenny. The dancers are Diana Cardiff, Alison Cockrill, Sara Jinks, Saiko Kobayashi, Cathy Sutherland and Lori Dillon (understudy).

While some of her collaborators on "the Vivian girls" explored Darger's written material in depth, Graney says she was fired by the paintings and not the 15,000 pages of text. "I was more interested for myself as an artist in why and how I was affected by the images and how I could translate that effect into movement and into a panorama that I could then share with people."

Mary Murfin Bayley:

Dance preview

"the Vivian girls," the Pat Graney Company, 8 p.m. today and Saturday, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $31 (206-292-ARTS, 206-315-8015 for groups of 16 or more, or online at