After a months-long search for a suitable space, Pat Graney has filled an old City Light warehouse with a glorious collection of stuff—shoes and keys and miniature figurines, all arranged in loving detail in a rabbit warren of rooms, closets, corridors, and drawers. There’s a wall stacked more than head-high with books of all sorts, from Stephen King to appliance manuals; a recreation of her childhood bedroom (with a projection on the bed of a young girl asleep); a corridor with a rack of gigantic party dresses hanging overhead. There’s a narrow hallway lined with police reports from her father, who was a detective in Chicago, another wall papered with shipping envelopes, and a shimmering water fountain paved with little white buttons. The floor is covered throughout with fine white sand. Alongside its other qualities, Graney’s new performance installation, House of Mind, is a paean to pack rats.
Graney and her crew have built a physical manifestation of the theory that the brain is like a filing cabinet, where our thoughts are all stored next to each other, waiting for us to open a drawer and sort through the contents. Here the audience opens all the drawers, closets, and cupboards, exploring the space at the beginning of the evening in much the same way you used to look in your neighbor’s closets when you were babysitting, trying to piece together what their lives were like when you weren’t there.
After the audience has rummaged through everything and settled into chairs with the legs cut short, Graney’s performers filter into the space. Most of the dancing is as simple as the set is baroque. The performance opens with a long walking sequence for Michelle de la Vega and Trinidad Martînez, who step, turn, pause, and pace at a moderate tempo with no histrionics attached. The cast is serene throughout the show, whether they’re performing mundane tasks (“watching” television, baking a cake) or moving through more dancerly actions. They inhabit the set like a house, sometimes as adults but mostly as children, playing with toys or squirming with boredom. The non-sequitur sequencing gives it all a dreamy feel, but there are moments of mundane reality throughout: Jody Kuehler, prim in a housedress, makes cake batter in a vintage stand mixer, Jenny Peterson lies reading on the floor like any kid lost in a favorite book. Sara Jinks decorates another cake and serves it like a mom.
But these realistic activities are happening in a more fanciful environment. As in Alice’s Wonderland, we are both giants and midgets, too big to fit in the chairs but very small next to a huge room divider full of little shelves and niches, each with a miniature in it. There’s a catwalk halfway up the walls, narrow enough to make us nervous as the dancers walk along it, leaning carefully over the side to look below. They hover like gargoyles or pose like fashion models, as videos by Ellen Bromberg of tumbling bodies or goldfish are projected against the back wall. The sound score by Amy Denio is full of sotto voce comments, lists of memories (“I dream of making maps”) or concerns (“The fear of running out of things to read”).
Graney’s topic here is memory, both hers and her mother’s, who is in the middle of the long slide of Alzheimer’s, and so there’s a sadness permeating the program. But alongside that narrative, House of Mind is also a history of Graney’s choreography: The rack of giant dresses hanging overhead is a link to the big hoop skirts in Stabat Mater, the sand on the floor could be left over from the gentle drifts in Tattoo, a vintage bathing suit comes from Pagan Love Songs, the perilous catwalk could be a nod to her gymnastics pieces like Seven/Uneven.
Graney has pulled House of Mind from her own head, but many of the artifacts she’s collected have a universal feel. As the audience peered into cupboards and opened drawers, they whispered “I had one of those dolls” and “I remember that couch.” These particular memories may have come from the choreographer, but the chocolaty scent of cake batter evoked past birthdays for many of us there.