Darger's Fantastic Landscape
Henry Darger died in 1973 and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He had worked his entire adult life in menial jobs such as dishwasher or janitor, moved to a charity home a year before his death because he could no longer climb the stairs to the room on Chicago’s North Side that he first rented in 1930. After assisting him in moving, his landlord, Nathan Lerner and his wife Kiyoko, discovered what Darger had left behind: A 15,000 page, 12 volume, single-spaced, typewritten epic entitled “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion” along with paintings and murals up to four feet wide and ten feet high in his room that illustrated the saga.
Based in Seattle, Pat Graney has taken on the impossible task of turning Henry Darger’s artwork into a dance. Graney wisely does not attempt to take on the plot of the epic. Instead she creates images and episodes taking their initial poses from Darger’s illustrations. It’s a series of tableaux vivants.
The work opens on a set that consists of the hand bound book manuscripts in “Alice in Wonderland” scale. There are projections at the back, first of Darger’s room in Chicago, then of his illustrations. Graney’s five dancers, in pinafores and smocks as well as black pageboy wigs, become the illustrations. The tableaux unfold at a leisurely pace to haunting music by Amy Denio and Martin Hayes.
When there is movement, it’s jerky. Graney describes the process in the program notes as one of stringing together various poses to become a movement phrase. The jerky poses look like children’s skipping games, perhaps hopscotch. A dancer appears in multicolored butterfly wings, but Graney sets her on pointe. Graney isn’t using ballet pointe technique, although she intelligently uses dancers who look like they’ve had pointe training. For Graney, the shoe is a magic slipper that changes the dancer’s line. Except for a few chaîné turns, all the vocabulary is invented turned-in poses, climbs among the volumes, or walks. It’s not extensive, but it’s a good use of the shoe that has nothing to do with ballet.
The butterfly girls and other characters return in costumes with tiny attached penises, one of the aspects of Darger’s drawings of little girls that so perplex viewers. There are competing explanations of this including the possibility that Darger was innocent of what a female child’s anatomy would look like. This ambivalence is one of the most impossible things to translate to the stage. The costume attachments can’t really work; as discreet as they are, there’s no way to make them meld into the entire world the way they do in Darger’s illustrations. In the pictures, they’re just another part of the fantastic landscape.
The work is in two halves. During the intermission, the scenery undergoes another “Alice in Wonderland” transformation and is replaced by the same books, now shrunken in scale to the size of the dancers. Eat me. Drink me. The mood turns darker and more pensive, and there is now a trio of butterfly girls as well as more extended solos danced on and among the volumes. The work ends as it began, with the dancers still and the slideshow, this time of the more disturbing drawings of war and torture, being the only movement on stage.
It’s difficult to convey the mood of Darger’s apocalyptic idylls work in words, doubly difficult in dance. The dancers remained impassive and shadowed in darkness, the little girls projected behind them cheerful and animated even in war amidst a landscape of a hundred brilliantly delicate hues. Bob and Colleen Bonniol’s projections and sets are instrumental in bringing Darger to the stage.
Henry Darger fulfills every romantic myth of the artist: Solitary, unbalanced, undiscovered, untrained, unrecognized, impoverished and conveniently dead, therefore available for romanticizing, analysis and exploitation. He’s become an industry: An estimate of the value of the illustrations sold so far is $2,000,000. There aren’t any villains in this story; the Lerners were persistently kind to a man with no family (they lowered rather than raised his rent) and were both artists themselves. If Graney used Darger, it’s in the mildest way. She never puts her vision ahead of his. It’s an honest path, but predictably he overwhelms her. We leave the theater thinking about Henry Darger, not Pat Graney. The Vivian Girls, like the epic fantasy works of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum or C.S. Lewis, is an alternate universe that exists inside the mind of the author, and if he or she is lucky, the reader. One enters and accepts it whole. The paradox is, there’s no room for Graney’s vision inside of Darger’s unless she makes room for it herself.