Pat Graney’s "Faith Triptych" Fills Every Seat at On the Boards

Scene from Pat Graney’s “Tattoo” (Photo: Tim Summers)

The first thing to mention is that if you don’t already have your tickets, Pat Graney‘s Faith Triptych (at On the Boards tonight and Sunday) is sold out. You might call the box office and see if there are returns, if you’re desperate. For those of you with tickets, a word of warning: The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and as I exited the time was 11:45 p.m., so there goes your evening.

It’s a monumental evening in just about every aspect, from the years-in-the-making works from 1991, 1995, and 2001; to the manipulation of time and space; to the ways women see themselves (or not), and feel embodied. There’s spectacle in stagecraft (Jeff Gerson’s sand- and rice-falls, and transforming table; Ellen Fullman’s sound skirts, pictured above; and a large alligator comfortable enough to sleep on designed by Carla Wesson and built by Marilyn Lysohir) and in concept (the “living Caravaggios” of Faith, the full body art of Tattoo).

It’s an enviable position to be in as a choreographer, I suppose, that people walk out discussing which of your major works they like most. Michael Upchurch calls Faith the “best part“; Marcie Sillman explains where the frisson arises: “Slowly, the women lower a body from a cross and carry it tenderly across the stage. For many Christians the ritual is familiar, but the female celebrants are not.” Graney spreads the composition across the whole stage, sometimes in magical tableaux that “resolve” suddenly out of languid gesture, sometimes in time, as a body is carried a few steps, then shifted to another woman’s shoulders, carried a few steps, and the burden given away again.

An arresting segment with red balls reminded me tangentially of Atalanta and the golden apples. It’s the combination of gymnastic athleticism and the interference of the balls, which at times roll across the stage in the reverse direction the dancers run. The dancers catch and balance on them with a certain pride, though there’s also a moment when, held between their ankles, the balls act as anchors.

Red arrives again in the form of red shoes, high heels, that a dancer tapes her feet into the shape of before packing them in. There’s a tap riff on the possession of red shoes, the obsession with personal appearance; but the shoes are also physically transformative, used as levers to manipulate the dancers (in one case they end up the arms of a dancer-chair).

Faith concludes with the dancers in the nude; it’s a return to the sculptural Caravaggio aesthetic, without the tunic-dresses of the opening, and it occurs in a languidly unfolding time, the women’s bodies given deep shadows and warm highlights by Meg Fox’s lighting design. To the recitation of Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), they cluster together like a flock of sheep, head to thigh.

My favorite, on first viewing, was Sleep, which is one of those works that gives you just enough bread crumbs that you end up confidently lost. But I also like the unforced intimacy it assumes with a female audience; it’s filled with totemic props and situations evocative of growing up as a girl in a time and place, from bikes with pom-pom handlebars to birthday cakes and batons. Sometimes “serious” artists cede sentiment to the gingerbread-house brigade, but it can be very powerful, as it is here, shown in conflict with life’s pressures.

It opens with a young girl who blows out the candles on a cake, then nestles under a huge, stage-filling white sheet back of the stage, while a large alligator sits up front, near the audience. The sheet is pulled away, and a group of dancers crab-steps their way in unison back and forth across the stage, and the little girl goes to sleep on the back of the alligator. Schoolgirl outfits and Mary Jane tap shoes figure for a while; the dancers tap from their backs. A red dress appears that irritates the wearer, everyone sits in chairs and makes rote gestures. The central transfiguration is the dream of a bridal shower, complete with transcendent streams of rice from the heavens. Then a woman holds a young girl who you first think may be sleeping, but does not wake up as she’s shifted from right to left, and then the dancer makes a rocking crib of her hips and the woman behind me started sobbing. Then Amii LeGendre is parked in front of a mirror, trying to tape herself into youthfulness before joining a coterie of little black dresses in black pumps getting drunk, laughing too loudly, and humping the table. The former bride rummages for her forgotten wedding dress, tries to fit back into it. The sheeted table hosts a funeral. The dancers place the totemic items around, light candles. The little girl curls up at the foot of it.

In its way, Sleep is flip side of the myth of the solar hero, a lunar version, where tasks and labors become life transitions instead, and strength is found in the endurance of sleep. All myth happened “just a little ways over,” so the telling requires things like Mary Janes and little black dresses. But it’s not kitsch; it’s myth on simmer.

Tattoo, Graney has been quoted as saying, is “about how, as we become more technological, we are called back to some primitive state. The primitive state is complex, not simple. Body decoration, mockup and tattoos provide a connection to those more primitive states.” So it opens with two dancers in body art walking very slowly across the stage, asserting their consciousness of time, before contrasting with sections where the dancers are in black, slit skirts, various-colored skirts, and skirts that are wired for sound.

Of the three pieces, this one is most likely to confound you with its swerves, as Graney explores rites and ritual (including lipstick application). One of the dancers in the wired skirts (Alison Cockrill, I think) goes on to sit down and eat potato chips (Tim’s! I also think) into a headphone. She also makes her way across the stage, tracing out little diagrams with her foot, while talking non-stop and mostly unintelligibly into her mic, stopping twice to mount a little stepladder and poke her face into a light that’s streaming across the stage about eight feet up.

There’s a good deal of voice-over about how language is just sound, and where the meaning comes from. A quartet of dancers are veiled by sand that streams from above, then they get down on hands and knees and begin spreading it it wide swaths across the floor, as the two dancers in body art traverse this re-created desert.