A review of the Seattle dance maker’s dance-performance piece at On the Boards, one that ruminates on socially constructed standards of beauty.
Pat Graney’s new dance-performance piece “Girl Gods” begins with a young woman in a tight black mini-dress and heels, a cup of tea carried precariously in one hand.
As she slowly totters and steadies herself along a tall, wide wall of irregular white bricks, the cup clinks against the saucer. As tension mounts, can she keep her balance?
This is a potent opening image in a full-length work that ruminates on socially constructed standards of female attractiveness. Women’s repressed anger about these rigid codes also finds an outlet in “Girl Gods.”
Pat Graney: ‘Girl Gods’
Repeats Friday-Sunday (Oct. 2-4) at On the Boards, 100 Roy St., Seattle; $25 (206-217-9888 or ontheboards.org).
But along with some witty and provocative spectacles in this carefully composed, episodic piece, there’s lot of repetition over 80 minutes. There are tired and simplistic notions about the cathartic power of rage. And a revisiting of concerns addressed by feminist choreographers over the past several decades, which doesn’t add much that’s fresh to the discussion.
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The interplay between the performers and Holly Batt’s marvelous interactive wall structure is one of the more inventive and captivating elements. From its nooks and crannies, and from behind removable bricks, the ensemble of five women retrieve an assortment of archetypal objects.
They pull out boxes holding designer Frances Kenny’s symbolic outfits, and frequently change in and out of them. There are frilly, girlie party frocks for a line dance of little Shirley Temples striking fake-cute poses. There are casual togs several sizes too small, which a dancer humorously, embarrassingly, squeezes her body into as if to deny adult womanhood. There’s a low-cut red cocktail dress for another kind of posing.
One of the sharpest sequences comments on the persistent social imperative to deny one’s appetite to stay pencil-slim. A kitchen apron is retrieved from the wall, and a chicken in a pan. The cooked bird will be cut into several teeny-tiny portions and served. But none of the slender diners can bear to eat a morsel — though one dancer sneaks off to binge on a cupcake hidden in another of the wall’s niches.
In bits of taped interviews heard on Amy Denio’s diverse sound score, older women talk about the difficulties of expressing anger when only men were allowed to do so. Not surprisingly, “Girl Gods” culminates with eruptions of kinetic, earthy rage, with women in their regimental little black dresses thrashing and kicking in the dirt.
In the end it is only screaming-blue anger that purges and heals and instigates the creation of a mandala spread across the stage.
Graney’s dancers are tireless and supple, and include a child who makes several cameo appearances. And this award-winning Seattle dance maker’s choreography is by turns meditative (with flowing upper-body movements), ironic and explosive, and there’s a commitment and urgency here.
But some ideas extend long after we’ve gotten the point. The frozen expressions and the cool, robotic efficiency of the dancers allows for none of the genuine pleasure many women find in “playing dress-up” — not to comply with a sexist order, but as an expression of sensuality.
Perhaps “Girl Gods” is aimed at women too young to have been in the thick of the modern feminist movement themselves. Or it’s a reminder that there are battles still to wage for equality. But there’s only a fleeting suggestion, in the graceful bearing of an older performer, of the serenity achieved by psychological and social victories already won.