New York

Jane Comfort

Joyce Theater

Jane Comfort’s dance extravaganza, S/He, 1994, shows us what the latest gender wars actually look like when danced and set to music. Every movement is a loaded example of how men and women inhabit space—do they simper or strut, cross their legs or spread them—which raises the age-old nature/nurture question to the point that you want to spend time in front of a mirror, weeding out your own politically incorrect gestures. Take the way you prop your chin on your hand, as though staring dreamily our the window without a care in the world—that’s not natural, it’s just another white woman’s pose. Or a certain way of holding your head, moving from side to side, that grew out of hip-hop culture and was popularized by MTV, again a culturally specific “body language.” In this way, Comfort compiles a repertoire of movements that reflect gender roles and specific ethnicities, which, through repetition and rhythm, become energetic and fluid dance.

Best known for using spoken text as the basis for choreography, Comfort succeeds when the language becomes lost in the dance. In S/He this occurs with less frequency, although occasionally the audience is swept along by movements and text that magically feed one another. The most satisfying sequence of the piece centers on the ways men and women sit: men lean back on their chairs, arms clasped behind their heads with their elbows extended like bull’s horns from their shoulders, while women weave their legs and arms together until their bodies look like folded paper fans. Underscoring the fundamental theme of S/He, the dancers constantly switch gender roles as they rhythmically repeat these everyday moves. The final segment, on the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, is most interesting when movement carries the narrative, when the all-too-familiar story of dirty politics is transformed into a contemporary ballet through gospel and pop music as well as modern jazz steps modulated by rhythmic stamping.

Comfort’s contribution to the dance-theater genre is decidedly American: she floods her texts with colloquialisms, slang, and scenarios from TV commercials. Sometimes this approach verges on the silly, like the skit of a man advertising “Wonder-jock” underpants. At other times Comfort relies on more loaded inversions of popular sentiment, as in the sequence where a woman sings “He’s having my baby” to a pregnant man. Although overworked as a lesson in empathy, the skit in which the woman in the business suit and the man in the apron exchange roles becomes a measure of the evolution of dance politics as well. In many contemporary companies, partnering is now shared equally by men and women.

S/He is admirable in its ability to blend dance, song, and politics, but its division into numerous skits places a strain on the overall performance. Eliminating some of the comic scenarios would allow for a more complex, fine-tuned development of Comfort’s choreographic vision.

RoseLee Goldberg