Little Girls Lost
In artist Henry Darger's surreal world, cupid-like little girls sport horns and serpent tails. They look Kewpie-doll sweet, until Darger disembowels them in vivid watercolors, suggesting the menace beneath the veneer of his perfect-drawn girls, in smock pinafores and Mary Janes. Seattle choreographer Pat Graney came across Darger's work by chance and couldn't put it aside, three years later the result—"The Vivian Girls"—arrived at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center's Kay Theatre.
Darger, a now in-vogue "outsider" artist, who worked alone divorced from the mainstream artworld, invented a fantasy universe for his Vivian girls, Catholic school girls who save the world from fantastical beasts. Darger died in 1973, and before that lived reclusively, writing and illustrating a multivolume narrative about life and struggle on an imagined planet where his Vivian Girls fought child enslavement against creatures he called Glandelinians. Darger made hundreds of watercolors and collage renderings using snipped catalogue images of girls from the 1930s and 40s. He also penned an astonishing and nearly insurmountable 15,145-page manuscript—single-spaced—about the girls' exploits. Was Darger crazed, gifted or both? Like Kafka before him, who requested that his work be destroyed upon his death, Darger's work was saved by a Max Brod-like friend, Nathan Lerner, his landlord and an artist.
There's a distinctly poignant quality to Darger's paintings and collages. With their childishly bright colors and their highly stylized animals, flowers, birds, butterflies and, most telling, little girls, these works somehow draw you in. Looking long at Darger's art is an experience, then, in voyeurism, one that is as discomfiting as it is enticing.
This is where Pat Graney's 80-minute evocation of the Darger oeuvre—which he titled "The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion"—is most successful. Graney's paean to Darger evokes those same discomfiting feelings from her five female dancers—the Vivian Girls—who initially appear in costumer Frances Kenny's white pinafores, anklets white Mary Janes, looking like so many Shirley Temples, sans the curly locks. Instead, these girls sport identical black bobs (by wigmaker Wade Madsen) and placid expressions, which against a backdrop of Darger's paintings suggest deeply hidden secrets.
Amy Denio's haunting violin and electronic score, enhanced with children's voices and violinist Martin Hayes lullaby-like riff, and Bob and Colleen Bonniol's visual design, including projections of selected Dargers, help Graney evoke the artist's world. The gawky, awkward walks, excruciatingly specific gestural vocabulary and the hyper-restrained dynamic lend an otherworldly quality to the performed material. Girlish games of hopscotch turn sinister as they quicken, distorted by flinging arms, unruly heads and muddled footwork. Repetitive semaphoric poses, a hand on the cheek, a palm at the heart, hands at the ears, suggest a secret language, child-like but formidably complex in execution. At first these little girls dance against a backdrop of oversized books (by Michael Hamann), which they scale and hang from like some schoolyard jungle gym. The scale miniaturizes the dancers, much they way Darger did with his catalogue-girl cutouts. Later, the books shrink and the girls return without the dollish wigs, their dresses an array of vivid colors. Graney has set on her dancers a transformative process, but their movements remain restrained, doll-like, mysteriously silenced. What secrets do these doll-to-girl beings hold so closely?
Attacking the Vivian Girls are fantastic creatures Graney drew from the Darger works. Graney concentrates on the butterflies fixating on the boyish little girl figures Darger drew with flaccid penises as additional objects of metamorphosis. Wearing point shoes and wings, these butterflies skitter and flit, like post-modern swans aching to alight and escape the earthly dangers that Darger suggests. Darger's renderings of crucified and eviscerated children, half-animal, half-human girls, transgendered girls and—perhaps most chilling—a gallows from which eight sweet-faced, well-dressed girls hang limp, suggest the horrors hidden in the Vivian Girls' invented world. There's a monster lurking, surely, but is it Darger, Darger's unchecked imagination or something else all together.
Darger's work is ghastly at its core and strangely enticing and beautiful—its colors, its imaginings, its fantasy—on the surface. In "The Vivian Girls" Graney has set aside the questions of what lead Darger to create, to concentrate instead on the art of the matter. But, ultimately, that leads to the same high-glossed veneer one feels about Darger himself. Graney has touched the surface, but neglected to mine the depths of this imagined nightmare, the horrors of children lost in adult fantasies.
Intriguing in Graney's work is the physical metamorphosis her Vivian Girls experience as the black-and-white kewpie dolls become 'real' girls. Finally, at the end, one little girl peers into the pages of Darger's purported oversized manuscript—the others rest in the shadows. Has she found her own story there, played out in horrible Technicolor painting? "The Vivian Girls" is at its core a mystery. But through Graney's choreography, as beautifully specific as it is—and each of her dancers (Diana Cardiff, Alison Cockrill, Sara Jinks, Amelia Reeber and Cathy Sutherland) astonishes in individual ways—it remains coolly removed, as unreachable as Darger's fantasy world.
Photos by Tim Summers
3, No. 7