Jane Comfort has been described in the New York Times as “a postmodern pioneer in the use of verbal material in modern dance.” Two of Comfort’s better-known works are: S/he (l995), a blend of dance, song, and politics in which (according to Artforum) “movements and text ... magically feed one another,” and Faith Healing (l993), a work based on Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie, which uses text from the play, original text, and lip-synching to current movies.
Why should incorporating verbal material with dance be pioneer work, or is it, strictly? If “verbal material” refers here to speech, and if speech can be regarded as a kind of specialized exhalation—a definition I found in an early-’80s linguistics reader—then, in terms of sheer physicality, verbal material isn’t really on a different order from any other material found in a dance.
But we think of it as different—at least in the Western art world we do. Perhaps the main difference is that we consider dance to be something that is taken in through our eyes, mainly. And we consider speech to be something that is taken in through our ears, mostly. But if both are windows to our soul, so what? Is the difference huge?
Do speech and dance differ on any other terms besides sheer physicality? Again, maybe not. Both speech and movement carry meaning and they each can be loaded or bereft. Compare two simple sentences: Have a good day. Here is my phone number. Now think of an eye twitch and think of a wink (the example popularized by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz). These are two similar statements and two similar movements that will occupy, in each case, the near-top and the near-bottom of a meanometer (an instrument that measures meaning, yet to be invented).
Nevertheless, to incorporate (or “juxtapose” or “illustrate” or “feed” or “blend” or “express” or “copy” or “expand on”—all these are verbs used by reviewers of Jane Comfort’s choreography, their sheer variety showing our confusions about relations and priorities) the language of speech with the language of dance (or vice versa) is considered revolutionary in this day and age, after such a long time of separation between the two.
According to another somewhat antiquated source I found lying around the house (Doris Humphrey’s The Art of Making Dances), dance is the only theater art that has been divorced from words and this separation occurred early on—shortly after the Greek era (again, this is in the Western art world). By the 17th century, according to Humphrey, ballets were spectacles of movement only. And as such, they were somewhat suspect.
It seems that words have traditionally—and worldwide—been considered to somehow redeem dance morally. This might be a whole other topic, though of interest, I would think, in the dance worlds of today. Some of Comfort’s work is overtly political. Three Bagatelles for the Righteous (l996) is “played out against sound bites from such pols as Clinton, Dole, Gingrich and Robertson,” and “springs from Comfort’s abundant sense of outrage, political and otherwise,” according to Dance Magazine. Does Comfort use text in her pieces because she considers movement alone to be—in the context of modern dance—too vapid?
Another recent piece, though, is Underground River (l998) described by Dance Magazine as “a work of great beauty that depicts the drifting senses of a woman in a coma.” Comfort here uses actual speech (“the patronizing tone of the psychiatrist’s voice”), but she uses it to help create a world in which speech as a communicative tool is notably absent.
And the absence is not a loss.
“In the end [as described in Dance Magazine] blue feathers fall on the umbrella like snow covering tracks, and the sense of being in one’s own world remains—the compelling quality of the inner life, the artistic life, the underground river that is one’s own unconscious, overpowering all else.”
Jane Comfort and Company performs Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. At the Wilma. Call 543-7341 for ticket information.