writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Notes from the Underworld

Jane Comfort and Company
Dance Place

Washington, D.C.
April 17, 2004

by Tehreema Mitha
coyright © 2004 by Tehreema Mitha
published 19 April 2004

Jane Comfort and Company’s performance was a refreshing breath of air into a somewhat stagnant modern dance scene in DC. Comfort is a choreographer comfortable enough with herself to be able to explore without hesitation a theme with no pretensions so that humor could come through unrestrained and uninhibited.

The title of the opening forty-minute piece entitled Persephone had caught my eye in the preview articles. It has been a while since the first modern choreographers waded knee deep into the Greek myths. Nay, not just knee deep, Martha Graham swam in those waters while others, even in the ballet world, went in chest high. Since then, it has almost been taboo to touch such obvious story telling, and to dance anything overtly mythological. I was intrigued.

As the Greek Myth goes, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest, who is so admired by Hades, the God of the Underworld, that he abducts her and takes her away to his dark realm. Her mother deep in grief and in search of her daughter neglects her duties, and the world begins to perish as the fruits and crops and flowers all die. Zeus is forced to intervene and talks to Hades to give Persephone back to the earth. However, Persephone has eaten of the fruit of the dead and cannot exist away from the underworld. A deal is struck. Every year Persephone returns to her mother for a short period and we all experience spring. Then she must return to Hades and we go through winter again.

This company’s vision of spring was rather unusual, even given the fact that there is reference to the Jungian thought of looking at this myth as Persephone’s perilous journey of the soul from the conscious to the unconscious. Spring was represented by an all white landscape. White for purity? White in mythologies is usually associated with winter, or with the untouched soul. Perhaps here it meant Light.

Aleta Hayes was a wonderful and expressive Demeter, with all the grace and benevolence of the mother dancing with her daughter protected in her metaphorical lap. Her expressions were clear; her eyes true mirrors of the soul, her dancing strong and luscious. Her singing voice held the notes true.

I’m afraid I had trouble swallowing Cynthia Bueschel Svigals as Persephone. Her body type was too strong and authoritative to fit the role. She did not look like she could be carried off without a fight and did not exude that sense of vulnerability, innocence and fragility that one associates with the Persephone of the myth.

When Olaise Freeman entered the stage as Hades, I gasped at his frivolous costume, completely inappropriate for the God of the Underworld. He was dressed all in red as if he were a demon, a piece of rage, or a sign for danger. Nothing to do with the gloom or even the complication (taken in the metaphorical sense of the unconscious) that the underground world represents.

Yet, as a dancer, Olaise Freeman is lithe and amazing. His combinations seamless, his steps look effortless. Hindered by the ridiculous costume, he nonetheless established his presence and fixed his gaze on Persephone.

One interesting and beautiful change marking the taking of Persephone and the sorrow of her mother, is the choreographer’s presentation of the spring. The marley floor was covered by white linoleum throughout the first section. When Hades carries Persephone off, the mother looking for her daughter in despair, rips the lengths of tape off that joins the strips of white linoleum, exposing the black underneath, thus changing the atmosphere. Aleta Hayes, warbling her grief in unintelligible language, was superb. Here was something that could easily have degenerated into the embarrassing if not performed with complete conviction.

Persephone, in turn, seemed to flirt with Hades and then almost let herself be taken. This contrasts strongly with the story of the myth where Persephone is in dread of Hades, unwilling and certainly not flirtatious. Here, too, Persephone seems to dance with such strength that one cannot quite see her being abducted by Hades. I do not think that it is the choreography that sets this mismatch up.

The choreography for this section, and this pair here, was very interesting. Throughout the dance, there were a lot of handstands and much acrobatic maneuvering, yet it did not detract from the characters. With Hades, it was part persuasion, part overpowering Persephone and partly exuberance at his successful plotting.

The three other dancers on stage, Elizabeth Haselwood, Lisa Niedermeyer and Stephen Nunley must be given great credit for their characterization as “the inhabitants of the upper” and then the “underworlds”. They performed their parts with aplomb and a good measure of competent and sensitive dancing. I have to say that the choreography of the opening five minutes of the dance with these dancers on stage were not the best and one felt like one was in for another evening of inane modern dance steps that should have stayed in the classroom. But after that these dancers brought the mood and the choreography to life. As members of the upper world, the three dancers were gentle and sweet. As members of the underworld they were remarkable.

The choreography for the two sections, the upper and lower, was markedly different. Once Hades gets Persephone to the underworld, he is intent on keeping her there. The inhabitants of the underworld come in as strange playful things. Persephone is intrigued, just as we are. Soon they unfold themselves, helping Hades to entertain her, trying to drown out the sounds of Demeter’s weeping reaching the underworld. Strangely, in Jane Comforts interpretation, Persephone never craves the sunlight and the fresh air.

The “inhabitants” for the underworld section wear costumes like those of Hades, but with varied colors and some caps and on them these garments look entirely suitable. Yet the menace and gloom of Hades dark world and the presence of death in its continuous form is never really brought out.

Eventually in the last section of the dance Persephone does return to the upper world. There is no Zeus, and she seems to leave with no confrontation or opposition from Hades. She returns but again, in a masterful stroke of dramatization, she does not allow her mother to unfold the front strip pf white flooring so that now there is just a little bit f the black still exposed. Persephone blends in with the group, following the gentle dance combinations of the Harvest Goddess and her group, but every now and then, as if unable to break away, she bursts into the strange leaps, handstands and more powerful moves from the underworld. Then Hades comes in and Demeter must realize that he will forever be a part of her daughter’s life.

The music for this piece by Tigger Benford is well blended, giving us some singing on stage and sounds on tape mixed with musical instruments. The Music for the upper world is entirely different to the tone in the underworld, which is a little frenetic.

The second presentation of the evening was “Underground River” first performed in 1998. This was, to my mind, a very good combination for the evening as it seemed to refer to the inside mind, the inner world of a child. Again, the opening moves of the dance are not impressive. And again the guttural singing, perfectly in tune, by Aleta Hayes, provides the humorous note.

However, from there on with the help of Basil Twist’s puppet, worked well by the dancers moving to the music to somehow, with so little, give so much of emotion, the story begins to unfold.

The puppet, snatched from a strange looking umbrella, emerges to stand, move, dance, swim, soar and eventually comes to lie down low. Voices come in with the psychiatrist asking questions to an obviously unresponsive patient. The child is talked to by the voices of her parents urging her to squeeze the hand to show that she understands or hears. The voices grow more concerned. The doctor interposes asking her to work on her hands, on her fingers, concentrate on her legs.

All the while, there is so much going on in the child’s mind. She is playing, at times responding in her own way to the commands barked out to her. When the demands on her become intense, she is exhausted, she breaks away to play. Her world, in her own mind, is alive and flourishing, yet those outside of it do not understand. There is no communication, no rapport.

The dances easily become the engaging characters in the child’s world. The choreography is lively and funny, touching.

Finally in the end the body, as the voices of the parents become more desperate, represented by the puppet, meets its end, falling away softly as a feather, the mind slowly falls away too and thus the chapter on her inner life comes to an end.

The music provided by Toshi Reagon (known with her big band, Big Lovely, and daughter of founder of Sweet Honey In The Rock) was unobtrusive, so that my memory is more of the text and spoken word than of the music. The costumes did not seem to contribute anything special.

The dance, however, is a poignant, whimsical and touching gift reaching out to us without any heavy breathing.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 14
April 19, 2004

©2004 Tehreema Mitha





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last updated on April 19, 2004