This Week at Jacob’s Pillow: Jane Comfort and Company
Dance preview by Bess J.M. Hochstein
“Dance theater,” like its cousin “performance art,” can be a weighted term. Purists of either discipline – dance or theater – tend to view it as a bastardization of both. In the hands of a smart, engaged choreographer/director such as Jane Comfort, who has been choreographing since 1978 and has created 45 pieces for her own company since 1982, the resulting work can be revelatory, inspiring doubters of this interdisciplinary form to take another look.
Part of the reason Comfort’s work succeeds can be attributed to the accomplished, charismatic company she has assembled. Not just fine dancers, her performers are also, variously, singers, musicians, actors, writers, and composers, giving Comfort an overflowing palette from which to create her work.
Comfort’s program at Jacob’s Pillow this week, in the Doris Duke Theater from Wednesday through Sunday, includes her latest work, Beauty, which tackles the evolving ideal of beauty—and society’s pressure on women to conform to it—with humor, through dance, personal anecdotes, and flashy fashion. Talking about Beauty via email in between rehearsals at the Pillow, Comfort addressed the question of why the media bombards women with unattainable ideals of beauty, and why these messages have persisted and even intensified despite women’s political and economic gains.
“I guess it’s capitalism,” says Comfort. “More and more products and (surgical) procedures are invented, so there need to be customers for them. If every woman kept her lipstick until it ran out, Revlon and a lot of beauty businesses would go out of business. So create the need, the insecurity, and sell the product. You’ve heard of labiaplasty, right?”
Beauty employs the iconic Barbie doll, which Comfort never owned in her youth, as a foundation and touchstone. Expect laugh-out-loud segments—including a Barbie beauty contest—and lots of plastic, from body parts to smiles and personalities, plus contrasts between Barbie’s hobbled movements and the full, expressive movement vocabulary of a flesh-and-blood dancer.
Despite the humor, Comfort hopes the piece will deliver a serious message: “I want people to think, Oh my God… And maybe keep using their old lipstick. And resist the notion that they have to look the way the media is telling them to look. Which frankly looks more and more slutty each year. Slutty is not the same thing as a woman empowered by her sexuality.”
Beauty also includes an intimate encounter between Barbie and Ken, which earned the performance a “mature content” warning from the Pillow. “In my book, it’s not ‘mature content,’ notes Comfort, “but Barbie and Ken have sex as only their limbs allow. It’s hilarious. Frankly, any moms who are giving their three year olds Barbies shouldn’t have any complaints, because what is going on with the doll play is probably much racier than our show.”
Also on the program is the Bessie Award-winning Underground River, which was commissioned by and partially developed at the Pillow in 1998, and debuted in Manhattan at PS 122 before its first full-fledged Pillow production in 1999. In Underground River, the dancers manipulate puppets and other design elements by Basil Twist and sing a capella songs by Toshi Reagon as they portray the inner fantasy life of a girl who appears to be unconscious to those attempting to bring her back to the real world. “It is one of our favorite works and has been performed all over the world, even in Brazil, translated into Portuguese,” says Comfort. “We wanted to share it again with Pillow audiences.”
A frequent criticism of dance theater is that message too often supersedes movement. Comfort admits that message is primary in her work, but she does not believe it is at the expense of movement. “The movement style shifts to suit the world of the piece,” she says. “So over the years, I have become educated in many movement styles, from roller skating to puppetry to capoeira.”
As audiences are likely to see in both Beauty and Underground River, Comfort bristles against a hard-and-fast definition of the term “dance theater.”
“I just make the works,” she says. “The writers name the genre. I do wish that my work were also on a straight theater circuit, but there is a great divide between dance and theater, with little interest between the two.”