Essay: Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow


Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Note:  This is an excerpt of a pre-show talk delivered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival before Jane Comfort and Company’s performance of Beauty and Underground River while I was a scholar-in-residence this summer.

Beauty, female beauty, American female beauty; where do our ideas and ideals come from? Could it possibly have anything to do with a plastic icon of a doll named Barbie?

Multidisciplinary choreographer Jane Comfort thinks so in her new piece, titled Beauty. Who better to tackle this subject than Comfort, one of the foremost socially conscious artists working today? 

Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie and co-founder of Mattel, modeled her un-life like doll with the impossible female proportions of an over-sized bust and minuscule waist, golden long tresses held up in a top knot, wide-open eyes and a turned up tiny nose, after the German sex doll called Bild Lilli, which was, of course, meant for adults. When Handler noticed children playing with an adult proportioned doll, a light bulb went off. 

Barbie was born in March of 1959, the year that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty came out, Hawaii became a state, Explorer 6 sent the first picture of Earth from outer space, Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, Castro entered Havana as Batista fled Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev partied hard in Hollywood, and pantyhose hit the market.

The fifties also spawned the cookie-cutter sameness of the suburbs, where each house looked a lot like the one next to it. Conformity was on the march, as was the beginning stirrings of the sexual and political rebellion of the sixties.

It’s over a billion dolls later, and Barbie has now past her 50th birthday. Although she did have comeback role inToy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, Barbie has had her ups and downs. She broke up with Ken and riled women when her talking version uttered, “Math class is tough.”

She’s had numerous professions, from doctor to flight attendant, her most recent one being “Architect Barbie.” Museum Barbie has just entered the scene, with a doll inspired by Gustav Klimt’s muse Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently purchased the original 1959 Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model, known as Barbie No. 1, which will be featured, along with Ken, in an upcoming exhibit, “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.”

Handler envisioned her doll as a role model. But, I bet she would be surprised that Barbie is making her Pillow debut in 2011 in a dance crafted by Comfort.

Today, Barbie is mostly an ever-present collector’s item on eBay, while her rail thin physique continues to be the reigning ideal of beauty in the media, fashion and pop culture.

I should disclose I am a former Barbie, Ken, Midge and Skipper owner. I remember her fashion house, which contained a tiny book titled “How to lose weight”. When you turned it over it read simply, “Don’t eat.” I was seven years old at the time. A recent study suggests that half of three to six-year old girls worry about being overweight. Good Morning America just did a segment called “Mommy am I fat?” with five to eight-years-old girls. The rigors of female beauty regimes have seeped into the culture of young girls, and are every present for women of all ages.

Forget “Beauty and the Beast,” beauty is the beast, it’s hard to escape the incessant noise from the media on the “right” way to look. Spa menus and plastic surgery options get larger as the list of “so-called” improvements to the human body continues to multiply.

Eating disorders and obesity continue to plague our children. The body is in crisis as the standards for beauty seem to move toward even more unattainable heights. A relentless striving for perfection seems to be the driving myth in fashion magazines. And Photoshop has been no friend to real women either.

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Christopher Duggan

The myth, culture, and surround of beauty seems a perfect subject for Comfort, who in her over three-decade career has often been on the forefront of controversial subjects. Politics, social and gender issues are fair game for her, as evidenced in such works as An American Rendition,contrasting interrogation with shame-based reality TV, S/Hean investigation in gender behavior that incorporated Comfort’s research into crossdressing and Three Bagatelles for the Righteousa response to the havoc wreaked by the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, which included voice and text from the now GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

In Beauty, Comfort explores cultural norms using the lens of a doll who is sadly missing most of her joints. What an enormous movement playground she has found in that fact. And what makes matters worse, dear Barbie is perpetually in releve. Therein lies the fun, though. Barbie at least tries to dance.

Lucie Baker of Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

The choreographer has a field day playing with Barbie’s disjointed motions, contrasting that with a lush, earthy, and full-bodied vocabulary of real women navigating the demands of unreasonable standards. Comfort pokes playful fun at Barbie’s robotic optimism as seen by her pasted-on smile, pointing to a darker place in this culture of passivity.

Beauty regimes are inherently theatrical. I remember being mesmerized watching my own mother get ready for a party. Comfort explores the theater of “getting ready,”and the rather elaborate procedures of beautification. The ritual decoration of the human body is also an ancient practice harking back to sacred ceremonies.

As women, we can be easily judged by our numbers, weight, age, bust size and salaries. Turn on the television, and it’s a contest on every channel with some budding starlet begging for our votes. If we are going to be beautiful, surely we want to be the most beautiful. Comfort tests conventions by culminating Beauty in a contest. The judged transform into judges.

Comfort holds a unique place in the canon of American contemporary dance.  She’s been considered a pioneer interdisciplinary artist as she enlists text, song, visual elements, commissioned scores, along with an incredibly rich movement vocabulary culling from numerous forms of dance. She claims allegiance to no one style of moving.

Yet there’s never a bombardment of the senses. In looking over the body of her work, Comfort uses an “as needed” approach to mix mastering the arts. There’s such a spaciousness in the way she combines and layers art forms. She creates porous stage environments with text and movement held in equal esteem. It’s not heavy-handed. If the dancers suddenly begin singing, it’s because that’s what was called for at that moment.

Naming her a “Cultural Warrior,” scholar Suzanne Carbonneau writes in her poignant essay Jane Comfort’s America, “That is, in using every means of communication at her disposal—movement, language, visual elements, and music—Comfort brings authenticity and commitment to her voice of resistance.”

She has held a steady presence for the past several decades with over 50 dance theater works to her credit. A versatile artist, Comfort has re-purposed Tennessee Williams’ classic play, The Glass Menagerie in Faith Healing, choreographed the Broadway musicals Passion, by Stephen Sondheim, Amour, by Michel Legrand, Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing and the Off Broadway musical Wilder at Playwrights Horizons. Her career spans opera, with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Salome, and a commission from Ballet Memphis.

Jane Comfort and Company in Underground River; photo Christopher Duggan

Comfort has paired Beauty with her 1998 Bessie Award-winning piece Underground River, developed in 1997 at the Pillow Works series. There’s a potent chemistry in the juxtaposition of these two works.

From an investigation of surface beauty we move to inner beauty. From the body as decorative object, we move to the life beyond, above and beside the body. From a biting commentary, we shift into subtle textures of perception, and from a lifeless stiff human- shaped doll to a delicately animated cloth puppet, capable of everything, from tap dancing to the backstroke.

Jane Comfort and Company in Underground River; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Underground River takes us to a place we can only imagine, the life force of a girl in a coma. Science has yet to tell us what is really happening. Comfort takes us across the river of consciousness into uncharted territory.

She creates a place of wonder, there’s a floating quality, as if we are inside of an aquarium. Performers burst into song, grounding us into tactile experience of the body, then taking us back into the life of what lies beyond the scrim. Gentle sections of voice-over narration tether us to the known world.

The viewer watches from the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious world. Comfort proves that art is the domain of the unknowable. It’s a deeply meditative work, yet revealing in its joy and humor.

In the experience of immersing myself in Comfort’s work, I have come to the conclusion that her artistic sensibility functions much like that of a poet, a person called to show us the unseen, what’s right in front of us that we have yet to notice, a crack in the world that we might have missed.

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