Theater archives

Battling Children


Neta Pulvermacher is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the company she formed right after graduating from Juilliard (most of her early colleagues and others who danced with her later reappear on her two retrospective programs). The Juilliard training not only interested Pulvermacher in “dancey” dancing (her own zesty brand); it gave her musicality.

Program A’s Vivaldiana (2001) is a finely constructed, serious romp for six women, originally made for Barnard College students. Natsuki Arai, Karen Harvey, Theresa Ling, Omagbitse Omagbemi, Brittany Reese, and Rebecca Warner stride, rush, and swirl into canons and double canons. They can soar into an attitude turn or beat their feet together in a little brisé, then suddenly, bracingly plop to the floor in a sitting position. Even in an adversarial duet like Matildas (1991), to original music by David Shea, meticulous structures shape the tenderness and animosity. Omagbemi and Ling stand side by side; one of them swings a mean hip and the other falls, the sequence culminating in an attack from behind. We see this three times, differently positioned, accumulating force.

Pulvermacher’s marvelous Five Beds/ Children of the Dream is almost frighteningly intense in the intimate Flea. The inhabitants of the model “children’s house” in the kibbutz where the choreographer was raised march, salute, and chant their way through L’Internationale (in Hebrew) as if they’re about to charge right into us. And their night terrors, without parents or even their daytime caretakers for comfort, pierce us. In the beginning Pulvermacher names and mimes each of her 17 roommates (the nose picker, the crybaby, the precociously sexy . . . ). Wearing striped pajamas and black boots, Richard Ayres, Harvey, Paul Matteson, Reese, and original-cast members Pulvermacher and Lanileigh Ting hurry through their activities with the clunky, high-energy fervor of little kids. They bump along on their butts in gymnastic unison, memorize solfège, play Haydn on plastic recorders. They also roughhouse and race about in angry confusion, slinging their cots, falling onto them. One child’s brother commits suicide in the army they will all one day have to join; they offer clumsy comfort. At one point, Ting crawls around, moving two big cans for Matteson to walk precariously on, and the awkward, changeable friendship between them (both terrific) can alarm your heart.

“Outsider” artist Henry Darger died unknown in 1973. Still unknown are what obsessions, what madness fueled his 15,000- word manuscript setting forth the exploits of child heroes he called the Vivian Girls, and the drawings and watercolors that featured them. Notable Seattle-based choreographer Pat Graney and five dancers spent two years setting Darger’s visions in motion. The result, the Vivian girls, is as scarily beautiful as the artwork projected behind the action.

Graney doesn’t deal with the battle that informs Darger’s epic—the Vivian Girls versus the evil Glandelians—but with his characters (copied, sometimes collaged, from children’s books and comic strips) and his delicately balanced sanity. In the first act, Diana Cardiff, Alison Cockrill, Sara Jinks, Amelia Reeber, and Cathy Sutherland—dressed, like Darger’s heroines, as little schoolgirls in white frocks, socks, and Mary Janes, and wearing short, bobbed black wigs with bangs—lurk, perch, and dance on and around a pyramid of four enormous books and a single gigantic one (visual design by Bob and Colleen Bonniol). They may have escaped from the tattered pages, but they’re still somehow anchored to them. They watch the projected artwork and echo certain poses (like a finger in the mouth) but don’t intimate by staged distress the often terrifying images that dot Darger’s sunny pastel universe. When they shed their dresses, they reveal little white penises attached to their underwear (a Darger motif that must be gold to the Freudians), and thus garbed, with the addition of butterfly wings and pointe shoes, impersonate sometimes helpful, sometimes adversarial creatures (perhaps the little voices in their ears). Danger creeps in as thunder seething up under the childish voices and sweet fiddle tunes in Amy Denio and Martin Hayes’s magical score.

The adventurous little girls are mindful of one another. Sutherland is about to fall headfirst off the stacked books when Jinks drags her back by one ankle. They’re gawky in their forcefulness, even stiff—setting positions from the artwork into lurching motion. A fragmentary bout of hopscotch is a theme. In Act II, when three winged beings appear, they wobble on tiptoe as if having trouble with their feet or the terrain. Sutherland drags herself along.

In Act II, the books are reduced in scale, and the women gradually appear minus their wigs and in bright-colored dresses. You could imagine them as the enslaved children freed by the Vivian Girls, or that they have distanced themselves from the books and paintings, but—as their shadows fall across Darger’s pictures of hanged, crucified, and eviscerated children—they seem no gladder or sorrier (although Cardiff sits for a long time looking worried). At the end of Graney’s mesmerizing work, I suddenly remember that Darger was creating many of these images during one and possibly two world wars. One girl sits turning the pages of the smallest book while the others sleep; the evils projected on the back wall are no longer bizarre, dragon-tailed creatures, but shadowy, helmeted men with bayonets.