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Revisiting Faith

Pat Graney Company: Faith, REDCAT, April 28th – May 1st, 2011 –

Choreographer Pat Graney’s work is an unmistakably original artwork—fresh, timeless, and challenging. Graney is the recipient of dozens of awards for her choreography, including 11 NEA fellowships and the Alpert Award in the Arts. Her work presented at REDCAT recently is a re-creation of a 1991 piece that, in time, became the first segment of the Faith Tryptych, which, thanks to numerous grants, is being entirely resurrected this year. The one-hour Faith section stands on its own as a unique conception of movement and social commentary.

From the start we are drawn into an unusual experience: we witness animated tableaux vivants representing Caravaggio paintings of religious scenes, including The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Death of the Virgin Mary. But these tableaux are enhanced: the audience is privy to the methodical preparation of the scene followed by a sliver of stillness, then a gentle descent of the victim to the floor while the other company members reassemble. The industrious and graceful scurrying in assembly and disassembly of the scene is not unlike that of Pilobolus during their shadow work, although it predates their trademark fluid silhouettes by almost two decades. The first section ends with a single dancer proceeding towards the audience as darkness envelopes her. Throughout the tableaux we hear the elevated Latin mass music of Arvo Pärt, a sonic backdrop as essential as the exceptional lighting design by Ben Geffen and Amiya Brown, drawing on the original design by Meg Fox.

Tim Buckley’s heart-breaking “Song to the Siren,” as sung by the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, becomes the chilling background for the playful summer sequence, using small (nine-inch) red fitness inflatables rather than vinyl beach balls. The dancers variously throw, roll, glide on, and encumber the inflated balls as they dance what could be simulations of seals or mermaids. Their bodies are sometimes board-flat as they sling themselves forward in formation, each dancer’s ball supporting them in their slide front to back, after which they might catch the ball between their legs or do a precision throw to another dancer. The ensemble phrasing here is tricky and delighting: sometimes they act in sequence, other times they start and end precisely together. One can’t help but think of Hart Crane’s “Voyages” while hearing the Buckley song during this uninhibited play. How sad this joy is! The dancers wear white, so the many paths taken by the red balls in both directions across the stage become their own visual pattern that lulls us as the sirens lull those out to sea. “Swim to me,” the song says, “let me enfold you.” The movers think they’re playing with the ball—but it’s the ball that’s playing with them. This simplistic idea could have ruined the work if it were handled badly—but, as with Buckley’s song, their committed innocence is unassailable.

The next segment begins with the introduction of the theme that is visited later, which might best be described as the torture faced by many women in our society as they feel compelled to conform to outward expectations, and in fact regard it as their duty to participate in this institutionalized discomfort. A single dancer is seen taping her feet so that they will fit into the taper of her red high-heeled shoes; once she wedges herself into them, she stumbles as she leaves the stage. All the dancers soon have red heels and perform the segment in spite of, or in adaptation of, this counter-functional footwear. And they have changed outfits: no longer in white, they wear black micro-dresses as they move around the stage with the distorted lengths of their bare legs–it is tremendously un-sexy despite all the skin exposure and physicality. The dancer who began the section eventually reappears, fussing with her face and body in a mime of failure to achieve the cultural standards; no matter what she does, she does not meet the bar she feels is set for her. Of course, this is all my interpretation, but it’s not a subtle set of gestures and the dancer is a convincing and talented communicator.

The remarkable last section is almost too tender to attempt a description. We are witness to more tableaux, but these turn out to be with entirely naked bodies under subdued lighting. Somehow in the conception and performance of the dancers, who proceed at a calm pace throughout, there is not the slightest hint of sensationalism or exploitation. On Graney’s canvas we see a collusion of female forms freed to be individual and complete. After the various scenes are done, all the dancers step slowly towards the audience as darkness again falls, a moving testimony to the power of women to transform experience.

There is richness here that we should not take for granted. Graney has figured out how to create an hour-long work that, despite being sectionalized, is a unified piece which builds on itself and offers endless visual interest. It is compelling that several of the dancers in the performance were with Graney’s company 20 years ago–and all the dancing was expert, selfless, and, like the choreography itself, wholly genuine and direct.

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