In an eerily beautiful fusion of visual art and theatrical performance, the premiere of Pat Graney's "the Vivian girls" at the Moore last weekend brought to life the obsessive paintings and collages of reclusive artist Henry Darger.
Seattle-based choreographer Graney, whose much-acclaimed work spans 20 years, once again revealed her gift for creating haunting stage images that seem to linger beyond the movement and the music.
"Vivian girls" starts with a projected image of Darger's cluttered Chicago apartment. After Darger's death in 1973, photographer Nathan Lerner discovered hundreds of gorgeously colored watercolor collages of little girls cut from 1930s and '40s illustrations.
Oddly, Darger drew male genitalia on these cutouts and pasted the figures into lavish scenes that depict them in battle with overbearing militia men and winged angel-like creatures Darger called Blengins. He spelled out the children's violent adventures in more than 15,000 pages of single-spaced text.
During the course of the two-act program, Graney's choreography seems to free the Vivian girls from Darger's obsessions and allow them to have a life of their own.
In the first act, the girls wear identical black wigs and are dressed in white — the terrific costumes are by Frances Kelly. The girls scurry in and out of a set constructed of giant books. They interact with projected images, appear permeable with the painted world, and often take poses that reflect characters in the paintings.
In the second half, the Vivian girls are separate and distinct from the paintings. They are now wigless and dressed in Darger's brilliant colors.
By the end, the once-giant books are small enough for one of the girls to pick up. The girls are outside of the books and in control, having survived and transcended Darger's menacing world. There is a sense that by setting Darger's characters free, Graney has rescued Darger himself from the darkest of his obsessions.
The dancers' movements, interrupted by pauses and blackouts as if in an old-fashioned magic-lantern show, are at times as light and jumpy as in a hopscotch game. Other times, it is as if each physical movement is part of a secret language and the dancers' hands and feet are compulsively drawing pictures in the air or on the ground.
The score, by composer Amy Denio, is a complex mix of vocalization and sound collage with beautiful passages by Irish fiddler Martin Hayes. It conveys at times an aching sense of purity and innocence and at times a horrifying violence with a rumbling volume that shakes the theater.
The effective balance between dancer and projected image, so essential to the power of this work, is beautifully realized by lighting designer Ben Geffen and set and visual designers Bob and Colleen Bonniol.
Graney's "the Vivian girls" conveys an eerie sweetness and optimism and a sense of horrifying menace. It, like Darger's work, crosses over from the pleasurable ease of the pretty to the unnerving awe of beauty.