New York

Jane Comfort and Company

Performance Space 122

In a new work entitled Deportment, Jane Comfort concentrates on what she knows best—choreography built on language, with its rhythms, not its meaning, providing the underlying score for her dramatic dance. The result is her most complex and confident work to date.

Comfort probably talks more on stage than any other contemporary choreographer, yet one is never surprised or embarrassed when she or her dancers speak and act. Comfort sets the stage with words; in a dry, wry amplified female voice with heavy southern accent, she reads from Emily Post, giving calm yet emphatic directions as to how to conduct oneself in a variety of social settings. The four dancers (Nancy Alfaro, Mark Dendy, Stephen Petty, and Comfort) quickly show us that deportment—the hand-waving, body-bending, eye-roving, head-nodding, finger-pointing kind—is ultimately about anything but good manners. Though encoded into little bodies from the earliest age, proper deportment is in fact an elaborate armature concealing terrors of all sorts.

Comfort simultaneously unravels this overdetermined “good” behavior and builds personalities through a limited verbal and physical vocabulary. What the dancers say and do is clearly not identical; mind and body are constantly embroiled in an argumentative duo. Emphatic kicks, leaps, even midair cartwheels are employed along with her earlier sign-language skills and more “colloquial” gestures such as jock scratching or nail biting. Bodies clash chaotically and conversations degenerate, like those of a drunken quartet on a hot summer night. After the taunts and jibes about homosexuality and the gender-related humiliations, the real undertow of racial hatred beneath these good manners erupts. In the climactic wedding scene deportment fails miserably, tuxedos and floor-length gowns notwithstanding.

That Comfort is able to control this explosive material and lay it quietly alongside excerpts from the Southern writer Tennessee Williams is an indication of the breadth of her dramatic overview. In one scene from The Glass Menagerie, Comfort has Mark Dendy play the female lead Amanda, who, with all the flourishes of a drag queen, captures the exaggerated contortions characteristic of Southern femininity and hospitality. In another scene set in a tacky roller rink, lyrical skating adds emotional texture to the body language of the deep South, which is as distinctive as the region’s singsong accent.

Remarkably, no props are used; the white Southern porches and glass-walled bathrooms are evoked with dance alone. Her precise choreography evidences a minimalist’s understanding of space and a dramatist’s ability to transform space into place. Where the monumental sets and tragic scope of performers like Pina Bausch keep the viewer at a distance, Comfort’s sparse dramas start with the premise that movement is character; drama, therefore, occurs the moment one moves, while text provides the underlying score. Forced up close to the emotional material of bodies in motion, Comfort’s audience cannot ignore the nerve endings she exposes.

In a revised version of Portrait, 1989, that opened the evening’s performance, this vulnerability, which exposes the inner workings of self with the smallest gestures, is again the starting point. Autobiography intrudes, for it is clear that such closely observed minutiae of movements are generated from the choreographer’s own body. Cleverly, this portrait is unravelled through the workings of four dancers (Alfaro, Comfort, Petty and Lisa Gilette); we watch, as a single body and a mind reflected in four parts as though in a mirrored cell, descend from a perfectly benign starting point into psychosis. Young, single New Yorker at Reagan-era cocktail party, addresses the “other,” who has “more”—more dates, more shoes, more recognition, more style—until loathing and imperfectability of self becomes a maddening mantra, and regression the only means to find some fragment of unconditional love. As brutal as a Karen Finley performance, Portrait served as an important transition from earlier works in which Comfort’s theatrical drive was largely kept under wraps, to the bold maturity of the present. Deportment gives new meaning to the term dance theater and makes it clear that Jane Comfort is now positioned to step onto a much larger stage, and into a much brighter spotlight.

RoseLee Goldberg