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Pat Graney challenges frontiers of dance and sexuality

THE PAT GRANEY COMPANY

Choreography by Pat Graney.

Presented by Dance Umbrella.

Emerson Majestic Theatre,

Thursday, November 16.

By MARK ROBERTS

PAT GRANEY LIKES TO CHALLENGE conventions. The three pieces her company is presented for their Boston premiere at the Emerson Majestic Theatre all did so in different ways. The first, Five/Uneven, with five performers on five sets of asymmetric bars, challenged the very definitions of the art form, straddling the boundary between dance and sport. Her provocation went beyond purely artistic questions, however, and in the second and third dances one finds one's attitudes to children probed, and a monolith of Western American culture -- country and western music -- subverted in a challenge to conventional sexual attitudes.

This made for an evening that was always interesting, although sometimes emotionally distant when the concern with form or intellectual significance became more than the aesthetic power of the piece could carry. At its best, as in Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls, the country and western piece, Graney's choreography was witty and had some of the beguiling fluency of the movement of children playing. It could also suggest a powerful menace, as in the first two pieces.

The women who performed Five/Uneven, (three of them, sisters, known as "The Flying Garcias") all competed as gymnasts before joining Graney's company. They were a far cry from the Comaneci- or Korbet-like sylphs that are many people's stereotype of the female gymnast, however. When they swung in unison, the overwhelming impression was of physical power. Where competitive gymnastic routines on the bars usually last for a couple of minutes, Five/Uneven was 25 minutes long, and the strength required to sustain almost continual movement through this was palpable and awe-inspiring.

The sets of bars were arranged on stage in a row of three at the front and two at the back, so that the mesh of taut wires holding them up formed a lattice encasing the dancers. The sense of formality and discipline was enhanced by the measured movements with which they prepared for the piece, kneeling to apply chalk and then a fine spray of water from a bottle to their bandaged hands before hauling themselves aloft and into position for the music to start. There was a sense of the closeness that unites teams of athletes and troupes of dancers in this ritual preparation.

Of all the dances, this was the most purely formal, devoid of the specific clues and messages of the other two, and the one in which the audience was the least allowed to feel involved. The music, by Arturo Peal, was unremarkable, repetitive synthesizer patterns, but one's attention was focused on the performers. Their movements attempted to define a new geometry of the human body, tracing circles with their mighty loops around the two bars, like Leonardo da Vinci's scowling Renaissance man treading his circular and rectilinear boundaries. Space was measured in limb lengths, with the joints bracing angles. Almost every movement was necessary as part of the construction and domination of this new space; there was only one gesture that was purely expressive in the manner of a traditional dancer -- a momentarily raised hand -- the rest were part of larger physical movements.

The dancers faces expressed little emotion, but their exertion was evident. The sense of discipline that pervaded the piece was evident here, too, producing an unsettling effect. The sense was of an almost military precision, single-minded and unwavering in a unity of suprasexual power.

The queasy sexuality suggested in the first piece was taken further in Prince and Princess, which followed it. Four dancers, three women and one man, dressed in the frilly skirts and petticoats or -- for the man -- the short pants of little children dressed up in their Sunday best, cavorted through a gruesome parody of play. The poses around which the piece was built were taken from children's fashion advertising, and the insidious sexual provocation of their coquetry is grotesquely brought out by having adults perform them. The women flicked up their skirts and flashed their knickers; the man strutted about. The piece accelerated, and horror began to intrude as the cycle of poses was performed in ever quicker succession to the point where it appeared as a kind of neurotic tic. The tic then spilled into outright paroxysm, with the dancers jerking spastically on the floor. The piece was chilling and effective, confronting our complicity with the abuse of children's sexuality by the media.

The last piece, Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls, was far lighter in tone, but nonetheless masked considerable sexual challenge. Set to the syrupy soul stirrings of Patsy Cline, The Judds, and Belinda Carlisle, the four female dancers, dressed in the deliciously campy "cowgirl" uniforms of the cheerleaders of Sam Houston State University in Texas, acted out the passions and gunfights of life as it was lived in the mythical West. But while some of the movements would look quite at home in a drill display, the piece was laced with a lesbian feeling that would deeply unsettle the sort of red-blooded cowboy being sung about. The heartfelt emotion that is the stock in trade of C & W was hijacked from its resolutely heterosexual context and applied to the struggles of lesbian relationships, in a move that was very amusing and managed to be genuinely moving. The dancing was quickfire, like a children's game of cowboys, with the fingers poised as six-shooters, dramatic sprawling deaths, and lots of leaps across stage. Then it switched to the tightest of Texas two-steps, the women dancing in gimlet-eyed couples, breaking into spreadlegged somersaulting, with just the slightest flicker of a complicit grin as one of

the little cowgirls rose from between her partner's thighs.

Although this last piece left the audience laughing, the laughter was tinged with the same unsettledness that all Pat Graney's challenging work instilled.