writers on dancing


Underground Comfort

Persephone/Three Bagatelles for the Righteous/Underground River
Jane Comfort and Company
Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 5, 2004

By Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter

Jane Comfort is known for blending text and dance, with some of her works veering into the realm of theater, but for her company's first full-week engagement at the Joyce, she offered only one brief work in which text played a significant role. In the other two, more substantial works, her interest lay more in incorporating singing (actually, wordless vocalizing) alongside the movement, and her dancers responded more than ably to the challenge of occasionally combining vocal and physical exertions.

But with the focus so heavily on movement, the result was more often wan and meandering that strongly focused. "Persephone," a New York premiere, and "Underground River," a 1998 work, came across more as mood pieces, rich in atmosphere but weaker on substance. In some respects, they could almost be companion pieces, with their softly flowing white costumes by Liz Prince and the decorous, unemphatic movement that unfurls graciously across the stage.

In "Persephone," which at about 40 minutes felt over-extended, this benign, bucolic world of figures in white is Ms. Comfort's depiction of the realm, bathed in golden light, in which the innocent young goddess dwells prior to her abduction by Hades. She is first seen reclining with her mother Demeter (the riveting Aleta Hayes, whose way of moving is intriguing if not completely natural, and whose vocal skills are subtle and haunting). Nearby, a quartet of this Upper World's denizens bob and undulate rhythmically, often pausing in profile, to Tigger Banford's gamelan-influenced score, at times singing along with its evocative melodies.

Hades appears in the form of Olase Freman, a lithe, gymnastically-skilled figure whose sleek, layered bright red costumes clearly portends trouble. He catches Persephone (Cynthia Bueschel Svigals), who seems wary yet drawn to him, in a handstand, supporting her back, and soon she is wrapping her angled body around his torso, and he takes her away form the world she has known. Demeter lets forth an intense, painful wail of motherly anguish. The ensemble members carefully, methodically peel away the white floor strips, in an almost ceremonial manner, to represent Persephone's journey from one world into another. This attempt to make manifest the change of venue is a slow process that has the effect of lessening the dramatic tension.

Down in the Underworld, everything is, of course, much darker, and glowing brightly-colored twisty sculpture pieces hang overhead. The music adopts a harsher, dryer tone. As Hades and Persephone dance a duet marked by cantilevered lifts and suggestions of both gymnastics and contact improvisation, they resemble playmates, not antagonists. Eventually they embrace, sinking to the floor. The Underworld's denizens, in fantastical boldly colored outfits, cavort in a gleeful circle, their movement juicier and wilder than what came before.

The final scene, depicting Persephone's somewhat conflicted return — now she is caught between worlds, be longing to neither — is not as focused dramatically as it might be, and the work seems to peter out. It almost seems possible that that we have witnessed is a dream Persephone had. Clearly, there is plenty of symbolism and room for interpretation in the Persephone myth. Ms. Comfort's take seems to be that the heroine discovers her true self in the course of her abduction and visit to the Underworld, learning about deeper, darker mysteries that never entered the gentle, perhaps tedious placidity of the world in which her mother shielded her. This would work better in a work presenting the events clearly from her point of view, but that is not Ms. Comfort's approach, and Ms. Svigals is not a charismatic enough performer to provide that kind of compelling central focus. Also, she is tall, with a imposing physicality, and Mr. Freman is compact, so the sense of physical danger in the confrontation between them was absent; it looked like she could overpower him if she felt so inclined.

Ms. Comfort displays a surer hand in "Underground River," in which four dancers embody the unknowable inner workings of the mind of a young comatose girl. Moving very much as though one shared breath propelled their fluid, leisurely movements, they seem far removed from, and oblivious to, the tensely worried voices that are heard trying to comfort and reassure the young girl. They harmonize on several spare, intriguing traditional folk songs that have an Eastern European flavor, and in the most memorable section of the work, bring to life a remarkably simply stick-and-cloth puppet figure (one of several by Basil Twist) whose swaying, stepping, leaping and ultimately flying can be seen as embodying everything that is unavailable to the confined young girl, who nonetheless breaks free within the confines of her imagination.

Ms. Comfort turns two men into life-size puppets in "Three Bagatelles for the Righteous — Excerpt: Election Update 2004," an up-to-the-minute updating of a politically satirical work she made in 1996. Two robotic, mindlessly repetitive figures representing Bush and Kerry lip synch to souped-up recordings of some of their pet phrases as they're manipulated by three cleverly-costumed "handlers" (including one clearly meant to be Condoleezza Rice). The initial impact is witty and clever, but hard to sustain for long. Kerry, a stiff, pompous guy in a suit portrayed by Joseph Ritsch, naturally sports war medals and—unfortunately— raises a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Bush, in a hilarious portrayal by David Neumann, is in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit (with what looks like a codpiece added) and swaggers goofily, a mindless grin never leaving his face. Mr. Neumann is amazingly puppet-like and truly convinces you his handlers are pulling the strings. It all ends in chaos when the handlers start to tussle and grapple with each other, leaving the poor puppet figures helpless.
Volume 2, No. 38
October 11, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter


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