Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), Los Angeles, California November 3-6, 2016
What is it about a girl in stilettos—those near lethal heels generally designed by men: think Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin—that make a woman feel both seriously sexy and über-vulnerable at the same time? In her, “Girl Gods” (we prefer the term ‘Goddesses’), a dance three years in the making and a Los Angeles premiere, choreographer Pat Graney ventures into the terrain of feminine tropes with mordant wit, alarming candor and reservoirs of rage.
Oh—and the acute movement vocabulary, executed with vigor by Graney’s Seattle-based female quintet, amps up the estrogen factor in this 70-minute opus that recently earned two Bessie awards (outstanding production and outstanding visual design). Performed against Holly Batt’s set—a large wall with moveable, box-like shapes that alternately serve as cupboards, stairs, a bed/cum/coffin and a closet—the work also features a raw chicken, Hot Tamales candy, lots of cocktail dresses and three girlie girl frocks reminiscent of those worn by the deceased six-year old pageant winner, JonBenét Ramsey (costumes by Frances Kenny).
Think Mad Men meets Dance Moms (the latter gone amok, although that would seem redundant), and the imagistic parade does not so much pass us by as assault us. There’s Jenny Peterson in the opening scene tottering on her spiked heels and brandishing a wobbly teacup as she traverses the length of the wall. And poor Sruti Desai binges on chewy red sweets, the gooey stuff pouring from her mouth, geyser-like, staining her virginal white gown.
And what are we to make of a defiant Sarah Hogland, peeling down to bottomlessness, only to don a series of tiny garments, topped off with diminutive sunglasses and super-small flip-flops. Is she attempting to stave off adulthood or bowing to the body fascism of those worshipping at the altar of size 0? Whatever it might be, the scene proved simultaneously scary and humorous.
Making use of Amy Denio’s sound score (voiceover remembrances, organ-like ostinatos with the occasional cricket, and synth tracks), as well as several of Laura James’ lush film clips, Graney, who founded her company in 1990 (talk about staying power), deals with the notion of feminism in clichéd and unexpected ways.
That raw chicken morphs into a cooked bird providing the centerpiece at a dinner party—for anorexics—as Peterson cuts and serves microscopic forkfuls to her guests, before begging off to climb the wall and find some hidden treat—a gigantic cupcake—which she promptly and piggishly devours.
Cheryl Delostrinos and Desai, clad in scarlet dresses, kick up a storm, their hair flying, before collapsing to the floor, rebelling, reveling and rolling around raucously. Unison preening runs through this work, as well, with floaty arms, arched backs and cynical smiles and vacant stares abounding.
Is this gender equality, gender jealousy or gender backlash?
The unflagging Peterson, in an offbeat display of defiance, does a headstand against the wall, where she proceeds to undress herself in a strange striptease (don’t try this at home, no matter your sex), as scene after scene reveals a collective consciousness many might like to forget, while young women, on the other hand, should consider absorbing same as a nod to understanding feminist history (herstory).
As for that kiddy pageant tableau, it ends up in a rollicking, hair-pulling catfight, as a lone human doll remains standing and so very pleased with herself. Set to the anthemic tune of the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” the picture is enhanced by Amiya Brown’s rosy lighting, this pastel nightmare featuring the pink, yellow and lilac garb of girls going bad—or, perhaps, growing up to become, well, “nasty” women.
The spectacle is also shot through with sand that intermittently pours forth from a section of the wall; black sand that could represent time or a Buddhistic view of life, with Peterson, after a bout of furor-filled writhing and screaming, being defrocked by the others. Finally lying naked on the floor, Peterson is anointed with watery paper, her body covered with these wet squares, the dancers, including Lorraine Lau, circling around her, ritualistically and gently dropping flowers to form a fleshly mandala.
Is this the circle of a preordained life, an incessant, unyielding testament to a Barbie doll culture, or are we, as female warriors, able to embrace our powerful, having-most-of-it selves? While that multi-purpose wall did not come tumbling down (wishful thinking), upending a sometimes painful past to reveal an open, transcendent sky (shattered glass ceiling?), the dance, nevertheless, proved a sphinxlike palliative.
In these scorched earth times, it doesn’t hurt to crank up the volume on “Fight Song” and “Roar,” or, in a purely aesthetic sense, acknowledge the vision of Pat Graney and crew. Indeed, more, please!