The Past Requires Attention

Pat Graney’s unprecedented performance piece “House of Mind” goes on tour, bringing a deep reservoir of memory with it.

Photography by Aaron Locke

For twenty years Seattle-based choreographer Pat Graney has been concocting otherworldly dance-theatre allegories marked by intelligence and restraint, pieces where a beautifully carved tip stands in for a massive iceberg below.

This past December, Graney, 53, finally allowed Seattle a glimpse of what lies beneath with her site-specific art installation/dance concert entitled “House of Mind.” Now traveling America, Graney is touring with both the “House” dance concert and the enormous seven-room art installation she created and shaping the whole megillah to fit within a trio of crazily unique sites.

The piece that made its Seattle debut inside a crumbly five-thousand-foot City Light storage warehouse played in February inside a pristine white-walled artists’ gallery (Houston’s Diverseworks) and will land finally in a deconsecrated church on New York’s Governor’s Island in June (a seven-minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan). There is also hope of restaging it in Seattle, although there’s no current site available, and Miami presenters are sniffing at the project as well.

For “House of Mind,” billed as “an experiential interpretation of her mind,” Graney summoned a goodly sum of private and public funding to build and create dance inside physical representations of memories from her childhood in Edison Park, Chicago, and St. Augustine, Florida. Ink-stained, nostalgia-swollen histories and busy, wordless human activity suffuse the haunting show, which sold out for three weekends in Seattle, including snow days when the warehouse street was only accessible by foot.

“I have a naïveté that gives me a blind kind of faith in what I’m doing,” Graney explains. “There’s no one here in this project who’s done this kind of work before so we’re all really new at it, and discovering it, and trying to keep it a collaborative venture so we can really develop each of our roles in an integrated fashion.”

“House of Mind” composer Amy Denio sat in the cold warehouse for weeks watching Graney develop the piece with her dancers, gathering samples of Graney’s aural memories (“palm fronds and trains passing”): clips from movies, sixties radio tunes and slowed-down melodies from a large collection of music boxes. “For me it was one of the most challenging projects with Pat because it was all such a mystery,” Denio says.

William Moore, house manager and production coordinator, says, “This is dance and performance art and installation art. She’s not bound by those idioms; I think she’s trying to express a new idiom.”

While Seattle audiences were granted only a half hour to explore the “house” before the dance began, lucky Houston audiences were able to preview (and revisit) the installation during regular gallery hours. The tangle of rooms the viewer enters includes a hallway featuring a broadside of stacked books (three thousand pounds’ worth, eight feet high), a dark bedroom with a projected child on the bed and a projected window on the wall, an inaccessible office sprayed entirely in an eerie green wash, a forest of satin hoop dresses (nine feet tall by five feet wide, rigged twelve feet off the ground), a wall of pearly buttons under running water (eighty thousand of them, all hand-glued), a partitioned wall with hand-placed dollhouse pieces (thirty-five hundred miniatures), a narrowing hallway papered with police reports typed by her late father and another room of books where her mother appears in a video loop over which we hear her discussing life with Alzheimer’s disease. There are also sand floors (four thousand pounds’ worth), a half-dozen video tracks by Ellen Bromberg and three different soundtracks by Denio. Originally hired as a bookkeeper, David Traylor became Graney’s design wizard. On tour, the installation is handled by production managers Bill Moore and Heather Mayhew.

After the art viewing, audience members find their way to a semicircle of wooden chairs with sawed-off legs. Five women in pencil skirts and high heels slowly crisscross a busy domestic environment, scraping their shoes noisily as they light the stage with a mysterious repetitive animation. Dancers walking up and down to the second floor disappear behind doorways, reemerge, disappear. One dancer makes a cake onstage. Someone sits in a bubble bath.

Interviewed on the Seattle set in December, Graney described her aim: “To encapsulate all of memory in one day or one hour” with “that neurological kind of memory, where you’re just taking the images you get and you’re just going there. You might not know what they meant, you might never know. But they sort of reveal themselves throughout the piece, which is very interesting to me because I know some of those things but I don’t know others.”

She cites her aunt Kate as the inspiration for the clip-clop of shoes, which also contributes to her fascination with women’s lower legs. “And oh my god my fascination with Barbies and living in the Barbie world, having the Barbie stuff — oh my god I love that stuff,” she wailed.

It had been Graney’s plan to have at least twelve months in the building to extend the space and create the movement studies within it. In the end, she had just twelve weeks. “So we took the yearlong project and had to mash it into three months. And it was horrendous.” When she finally got into the old City Light warehouse, Graney asked her dancers to forge their own personal relationships to the rambling interior. “We came in here and talked and thought about how we are marked by our own memories, then we talked about this space. What do we think marks this space?”

The walking pattern that acts as a foundation for the piece is defiantly long and subtle “so you can’t tell exactly where it repeats until they do all these little turns. It’s very very complex — come in on the five or the twelve — I don’t even know the pattern, actually,” Graney laughs. “That constant rhythm is what creates the dynamic of the piece, not the movement but the actual rhythm of how the piece is constructed.”

Graney’s love for her mother, Irene, has found a place here. The gestalt of Pat’s mom, a former antiquarian bookseller and rare-button collector, was embedded in the piece from the inception. Then, during the wait time for a building to come free, Irene was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I thought [‘House of Mind’] was just going to be this additive thing on memory,” Graney says. “But it’s both how memory gets added and how it gets taken away.” In a videotaped interview with her mother — which runs during the piece — Irene says: “As far as recalling even the last ten minutes? I can’t. It’s frightening for a moment because the memory is a thing. And that thing you were thinking about — the memory — is gone. And you can’t get it back.”

Graney’s early childhood was shaped by tragedy. Her only memory of her policeman father was hearing of his fatal accident when she was three (he was thrown from a front-loader and died of a head injury). With four small children, her mother moved to Florida where she bought a dilapidated fourteen-room house and installed her bookshop on the main floor. “That has been her love, books, and my love, too,” Graney says. “I lived in that world completely, pretty much.”

One text she shares in detail in “House of Mind” is her father’s police reports:

Complaint alleges bookie was noted seated in the rear booth on the first floor of the premises taking bets and also over a phone at the rear of the premises on the west. He also went to the west end of the bar to take a bet from a patron answering to the name of “Flash.” The bookie is described as being 60 to 65 years of age, 5’6” in height, 140–150 pounds in weight, with grey hair and partially bald, also wore dark horn-rimmed glasses. He wore a white dress shirt, dark blue tie, bluish-grey suit and black shoes.

Prisons are Graney’s other work site, and her decade-long commitment to working with incarcerated women has not slowed during this new venture. She has two group-teaching programs developed for women offenders — Keeping the Faith Inside, a creative workshop for women in jail, and Keeping the Faith Transitions, which seeks to assist and inspire women and their children after release.

Recently one of Graney’s brothers was released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence in Florida for a drug conviction. “My family — we’ve had a very, very tough upbringing,” Graney says. “And I really feel like there’s a way for me to bridge my past and my present and my future together with the prison project . . . what I’ve come to realize is you share what you love. And that’s art.”

Graney fingers a porcelain cup and saucer she’s brought today to add to the set. “I love its heft,” she says, turning it over again and again, trailing off. •