Beauties, beasts battle in fragile, fevered realm

"The Vivian girls" makes one thing eminently clear: Pat Graney does her homework. The nationally renowned local choreographer spent nearly three years completing this piece, which is based on the paintings of hermetic outsider artist Henry Darger. Graney's work reveals such a close study and understanding of the reclusive, odd man (who died in 1973), it seems she climbed inside his head and returned to show us what she found.

Dressed in baby-doll dresses, bobbed black wigs and Mary Janes, the five Vivian girls dance in the only manner they can — the way Darger posed them in his 15,000-page illustrated epic of good and evil, which he composed largely by tracing girl figures from comic books and mail-order catalogs. Graney strings the stiff postures together with an appropriate awkwardness; the movements are as jerky and disjointed as when young girls march Barbies across a carpet.

But Darger's imaginary landscape is no Dream House. In the course of their adventures the Vivian girls meet with shocking violence, including hanging, crucifixion and evisceration. Graney's presentation of these gory images next to Darger's flowery, fanciful paintings (via projections crafted by Bob and Colleen Bonniol) emphasizes the scope and strangeness of the brain behind the art.

The dance also captures the spooky eroticism of Darger's work — the Vivian girls' shortie dresses alternate with camisoles and tiny white shorts, the latter of which are adorned with compact cotton penises. (One of the many mysteries about Darger is why he always drew male genitalia on the girls.)

But while the girls hopscotch and play near each other, they don't touch much beyond holding hands, as Darger's technique meant the characters could only interact as paper dolls would.

Amy Denio composed the haunting score, which parallels the action exquisitely and includes mournful Irish fiddle by Martin Hayes, thunderous industrial buzz, Gregorian-style chanting and carnival-of-the-insane accordion.

The current run is a repeat performance, after a nationwide tour and what Graney calls a "full revision" of the work. While most viewers will find it difficult to discern precisely what changes have been made since the 2004 premiere, the piece does hang together more successfully, while retaining its appealingly dark and peculiar tone.

Brangien Davis:


Broadway Performance Hall, Thursday night