Pat Graney founded her company in 1990 and per the press release, she draws her inspiration from artists such as American feminist artist Judy Chicago and Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta. With her evening-long work, Girl Gods, appearing now at REDCAT, Graney examines how society has targeted, treated and mistreated women. It exposes emotions and struggles that are often hidden behind masks of pretty painted smiles. With the aid of an award-winning set, subtle video projections of a woman walking or lying underwater, and five powerful performers, Girl Gods delivers a series of profound images through numerous vignettes. The five performers who are both strong movers and fine actors include Cheryl Delostrinos, Sruti Desai, Sarah R. Hogland, Lorraine Lau and Jenny May Peterson.
Graney’s Girl Gods recently won 2 Bessies (NYC Dance & Performance Award) for Outstanding Visual Design and Outstanding Production. The set, designed by Holly Batt, is two ceiling to floor joining white walls made up different sized boxes. Aside from presenting a stunning look, Batt’s set helps represent how women have felt boxed in by the limits put on them by society. I remember the women during the 1950s and 1960s who were homemakers or managed a family while also working low paying jobs. These were women whose only choices were to get married, and raise a family or work as secretaries, educators, nurses or some low skilled service job.
In Girl Gods we see five women dressed in white move through a series of abstracted stereotypical poses. A woman dons an apron and black rubber gloves to stuff a turkey; a turkey that she takes out of one of the boxes on the set’s wall. She returns it to the box leaving the image of placing the turkey into an oven. A woman sits alone at a table with an empty tea cup. She pours red sand from a tea pot, expressing the frustrating passage of unfulfilled time. A woman dressed in a fire engine red dress lies alone to experience frustration which accelerates into rage. She flails about and screams before lying totally exhausted. Finally, she rises to her feet and storms out screaming “Shut up!” to someone we cannot see. Her children perhaps?
Graney’s movement is packed with anger and frustration. Her dancers sometimes look like fish flopping around when taken out of water. Wearing heels, their feet slam the floor as they fling a leg to one side or thrust legs up into the air, causing their feet to crash back to earth. Four women dressed in all black bring out plates and silverware, placing them in a row downstage. Another woman, dressed in bright red, brings out a small cooked chicken and serves the others with a tiny morsel of food. While the women in black wait, the woman in red walks to the set and pulls part of it out. She climbs to the top of this stair-like structure and removes a small box. Inside is a large, icing covered cupcake which she proceeds to eat part of before carefully returning it back into its hiding place. She then returns to the group and instead of eating, they throw away their small servings of chicken. It is a powerful look at how women often starve themselves to stay thin and beautiful, or forced to “sneak eat” while alone.
We watch a woman strip and put on clothes that are far too small for her, trying to fool herself into believing that she is a size 6 rather than a 14. Another comes out dressed in pink jeans and blouse. She stands on her head and begins to strip. After succeeding in doing so, she simply walks offstage proving that a woman often must work far harder than a man to prove her worth. In one bizarre scene, we watch a woman, seated on the floor in a long white dress, open a box of candy and begin to eat the entire contents. No other action takes place except juices from the red candy drool from her mouth onto her beautiful, lacey white dress. It is another look at eating resulting from loneliness.
The set acts as oven, pantry, kitchen cabinets and even a refuse or a bed. During the entire production, there is a slow stream of black sand that intermittently pours out of the corner where the two walls meet. Near the end a woman violently acts out her rage by sending waves of the black sand over the white stage floor. A single woman then strips naked and lies down in the sand, as if dead or at least surrendering. After ceremoniously bathing her, the others take handfuls of the sand and draw a target around her. Sections of the set are removed to reveal colorful flowers which are then strewn throughout the target. It is a dynamic and lasting image of how women have been used throughout the ages.
Girl Gods is not a work that one enjoys watching and I felt that at times it became tedious and even redundant. It is, however, a work that makes one think; perhaps men more than women. It holds up a mirror to show the imbalance in our culture. Another weakness in this work is that Graney does not offer us any hope for change or a better future. I imagine strong women in the audience might feel that this work casts limits on their potential. It looks back, but not forward.
The creative staff that helped Pat Graney make Girl Gods such a success are Visual Designer Holly Batt, Lighting Designer Amiya Brown, Costume Designer Frances Kenny and filmmaker Laura James. Pat Graney Company: Girl Gods runs through November 6 at REDCAT.