Art Talk with Jane Comfort
Jane Comfort. Photo by Lois Greenfield
"Art works. Just let it." --- Jane Comfort
Since 1978 Jane Comfort has created more than 45 dance theater works for her eponymous company. Melding the vernaculars of dance, theater, and literature, Comfort creates profoundly moving works that defy simple description or categorization. In a 1999 article, Dance Magazine characterized Comfort's work as being "as cheeky as it is probing." We spoke with the innovative artist via e-mail as she recovered from the intensive lead-up to the debut of her most recent work Beauty at Jacob's Pillow this past June.
NEA: In five words or less, what’s Jane Comfort and Company?
JANE COMFORT: An experimental dance theater company.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist's life?
COMFORT: Wow---hmmm… to make ideas manifest. To keep my inner enchantment alive and well and to engage it in the creation of art. I love artists and performers and feel incredibly lucky to spend my life around them.
I'm very interested in trying to find a structural metaphor to represent the idea of a piece, and to build the work upon it. In An American Rendition, which was about our inability to look at difficult realities---like the fact that our government is engaging in extraordinary rendition and torture---when it's so much easier to watch TV reality shows, I used the idea of a channel changer as our structural device. A linear narrative about a person taken from an airport to a dark site for interrogation was constantly interrupted with a channel changer shifting the scene to America's Next Top Model or American Idol. The more garish the jump cut and the more ADD the rhythm, the better.
NEA: What’s your earliest memory of engaging with/experiencing the arts?
COMFORT: Child's play is art making. Once I could handle blocks as a toddler, everyday I would create a two-story "house" with a door, and behind it lived a witch.
NEA: Your dance work can involve elements of theater, of puppetry, and other disciplines. What's your philosophy behind this multidisciplinary approach to dance?
COMFORT: When I started choreographing in the late 70's I didn't feel that I could say what I needed through movement alone. Like a lot of downtown artists at the time, I was making work with social and political commentary and needed more than an arabesque. By my second concert, text was part of the work, and has remained so to this day. I am fascinated with how movement can support or subvert language. I've always been interested in hypocrisy, so undermining language with body information has often been part of my pieces.
Because I had been trained as a visual artist, it was easy to imagine other elements in the work as long as they supported its idea. I think of my work as theater, even though it is categorized as dance, and I try to maintain a non-hierarchical relationship among the different disciplines employed in it. If singing best carries an idea forward, then singing it will be.
NEA: In 2010, you received a Guggenheim Fellowship. What did that make possible for you?
COMFORT: It made it possible to do some things in creating Beauty that I might not have invested in. For example, I wanted to have a scene where a woman is photographed and then Photoshopped to a ridiculous extreme---with a smaller nose, bigger breasts, lighter skin color, thinner waist and thighs---just like they do in the magazines. The only way we were going to know if it worked was if we invested in the photo shoot and digital retouching, rented a projector for our first performances at Jacob's Pillow, and saw what we had. And we found out that our idea totally worked---the audience was shocked at what it saw. Maybe without the money I might have dropped the idea early on.
NEA: Why do you think we---the general public---need dance? Why do you need dance?
COMFORT: Because we're animals. Ninety percent of the information we get about each other is physical. And dance transcends that physical to art; it can be heartbreaking; it can be life changing. It makes us better than the animals we are. It makes us gods: those of us watching and those of us dancing.
I dropped visual arts and became a dancer after seeing Merce Cunningham perform at my college. It was in the final moments of "Place," and he was falling across the stage half encased in a plastic tube. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my life was changed.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
COMFORT: Many people are credited with this quote; I always heard that it was from Jung: "Artists are the antennae of society." We tell the truth, and we tell it early.
NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community to the artist?
COMFORT: To come see what we have made. To get in a car or subway and take your body to the theater or museum and engage your mind with ours. To complete the questions, the marks, the offerings we put out in our works with your perceptions and histories.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the field of dance---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work the dance community is making that isn’t yet there?
COMFORT: Certainly when I arrived in New York in the early 70's, a host of dance artists were addressing what was missing, or maybe what was there in plain sight, but not considered "dance." I delighted in the work of Grand Union and David Gordon. I remember watching David and Valda Setterfield do a piece at Paula Cooper's gallery with folding chairs. I never knew what was coming next, and I was thrilled at the possibility that dance could include singing, talking, soft shoe, lying on chairs while telling stories---anything!
I think structure is where the envelope is pushed, but certainly new vocabularies are thrilling too, like hip hop and contact improvisation. "Make it new" is the modernist dictum. When I started choreographing in the late 70's I wanted to make something new, but had no idea of what I had to say as an artist. By my second concert I was experimenting with sign language as a movement resource, and that led me to text, which became a path.
I've always said to myself that I had to be scared when making a new piece. I had to be pushing myself enough that it was scary. Right now, having come off a long project, I am tired of being scared; I'd like to feel confident in the rehearsal room instead of terrified for a change. But definitely I've been scared over the years and there have been rewards for taking the risk.
I remember in 1992 at PS 122 premiering Deportment, which was about all the intricate ways of teaching children bigotry. The piece used bigoted language, and built inch by inch from a humorous, seemingly innocuous base to a horrible scene where everything shifted and continued on to hell. That scene, which was the fulcrum on which the piece turned, left the audience shocked but then looking back at all their previous laughter and realizing that they were already six feet in. A friend who saw an early run-through was upset at the language and suggested I pull back, saying that as a white person I couldn't use it. But the piece was about racist, sexist, homophobic language, so to pull back would undermine the whole idea. She said she was scared for me, which then got me scared. But opening night the entire audience at PS 122 stood up and cheered. I had never seen a standing ovation at PS. We were so stunned that we forgot to bow---we just stood there looking at them, and they just stood there yelling and cheering back at us.
NEA: What does “Art Works” mean to you?
COMFORT: Art works. Just let it.
NEA: Anything you wish I’d asked? (And how would you answer?)
COMFORT: Here's an answer, but I don't know the question: My work is not completely dance or completely theater. Straddling these worlds can be a lonely place when people want to see what they already know.