Tag Archives: Jane Comfort and Company

Power to the People

The cast of Theatre Under The Stars' VOTE! A New Musical playing at the Hobby Center September 16-17, 2011. Photo by: Claire McAdams Photography

Update:  Houston is still voting crazed. Take Vote!, a new Theatre Under the Stars musical, penned by two Rice Alum and staring local performers goes down this weekend.  Jane Weiner of Hope Stone has her own voting frenzy going on with a Pepsi Refresh Project for her kid’s program . She wants your vote.

The story did arouse some wise feedback from Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler, who had some good points.  Do we really want the audience  driving programming? There are better ways to get them engaged.  I tried to concentrate on people using a voting process in more innovative ways,  yet Nodler’s worries are founded. We could easily go a little American Idol crazy.  Next up at Catastrophic is Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness that Morning is, running Sept. 23-Oct. 23 at Catastrophic’s offices on 1540 Sul Ross.

Oh, and guess who got elected at BalletMet? Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch was selected through the BalleMet onDemand program. His piece Return, set to music by Benedetto Marcello opens on Sept. 23.

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Christopher Duggan

Reprinted from Culturemap.

“The people have the power,” screamed Patti Smith in her now iconic song from Dream of Life. It’s official. Art lovers don’t want to just plop in row “J” like a lump anymore. Selecting our seats, where to eat and whether or not to valet park just doesn’t cut it these days. The era of the passive viewer is winding down. First, the audience wanted a party, now they want some authority.

To be specific, they want a vote.

Simon Cowell may have come and gone (to The X Factor), but theAmerican Idol template is everywhere, from Houston Grand Opera’sConcert of Arias to Opera Vista’s Competition/Festival. Most ballet competitions have audience choice awards, which dancers cherish. It means something to have the audience speak up. The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.

Let’s look at some innovations that go beyond the Idol format. Apparently, it’s not just the vote that matters but contact with the people you are voting for, as in the artists.

There are tons of fundraisers that get folks engaged through a voting process. Gift of Gift of (GOGO) is the love child of a contest and crowd fundingThe idea is for new collectors to have a chance to support emerging photographers while sipping a martini. Yes, there’s a party. Always a party. Write that part down. It’s a crucial step in leaving lumpland. The ticket price of the party gives you three votes.

GOGO held an open call for entries for photographers to submit work. The vote and party night goes down on August 20 at Spacetaker. The artists come to chat up their work and vie for your votes. The cash haul from the party tickets helps the group purchase the top-voted photographs, which are then gifted to a museum, in this case it’s theMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston. GOGO plans to expand to other museums across the country.

Earlier this spring, the team from Black Hole, Poison Girl and Antidotethrew a $20-a-head SuperNova party where they listened to impassioned pitches from four Montrose non-profits: Tara Kelly from the Mandell Park Association on an idea for a video podcast tour of the park, Lindsay Burleson from BooTown Theater on a bloody puppet show on ice, Maureen McNamara from the Wilson Montessori PTO on a natural play space for Spark Park and Ryan Perry on a mobile astronomy lab.

Even the losers are winners in that they have potentially reached a few new folks. The Spark Park won the pool of $640 but runner-up Emily Hynds of Bootown reports, “It was a blast.” Partygoers feasted on soup, beer and bread.

“Ideally, I’d like to see these happen at other places in other areas of the city. I’d love for it to be known as something we do in Houston, that neighborhoods get together and make these kinds of decisions together,” says Scott Repass, an owner of Black Hole. “It could have a real impact on how we feel about our city and our neighborhoods.”

I like the mix of arts, science and community projects.

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David Rafaël Botana, left, and James McGinn in Jonah Bokaer's "Filter. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell "

It’s not always about getting money, sometimes it’s an aesthetic choice. If you liked the lighting in Jonah Bokaer’s newest work, Filter, you can thank the audience, they voted for it in a smartphone app called Mass Mobile. When Bokaer arrived at Ferst Center at Geogia Tech he knew he wanted to develop some form of audience interaction. When Stephen Garrett, a graduate student at Georgia Tech Music Technology Program came forward with his idea of creating a special app, Bokaer was thrilled.

Known for his meticulous dances, Bokaer was fully ready to let go of the lighting. Audiences chose between four options and the timing of each choice. Bokaer was amazed at how well it all worked out. Several trial runs and the fact that he worked closely with his lighting designer, Aaron Copp, helped with that outcome.  University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts has plans to help Bokaer develop his next big project this spring.

During Psophonia Dance Company’s spring show, “Rip in the Atmosphere,” co-founder Sonia Noriega had the audience watch three versions of the same solo, each set to different music. During intermission, the audience voted on which music worked best. During the second half of the show, dancers repeated the piece as a trio with the winning piece of music. “Voting gave me the opportunity to interact with the audience,” says Noriega, who spent the intermission urging people to cast their vote. “People really got into it.”

BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, goes a step further in letting audiences curate the bill that opens the September season through a voting process in BalletMet onDemand. I voted for Dominic Walsh and Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch, who has a long relationship with the innovative Ohio troupe. Mildred’s Umbrella also lets the audience sit in the curator’s seat this season with their Fresh Ink Reading Series, where the audience votes for which play to produce next season.

Choreographer Jane Comfort takes the voting concept to the deepest place, letting selected audience members judge a Barbie beauty contest smack in the middle of her new work, Beauty, performed by Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week. The judged get to play judge in Comfort’s biting examination of the impossible standards of beauty set by mainstream media. I voted for Barbie #4 and she won. I felt, well, powerful.

I can’t wait to see what artists want me to vote on next. While the wisdom of the crowd is still being negotiated, I firmly believe that the future of art is in direct and lively communication. If it comes with some soup and beer, even better. Tired of just sitting there, we want to be a part of the action.

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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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Dancing in the Twittersphere

Gary Schaufeld, Jennifer Jones and Kristen Arnold in Sydney Skybetter's Temporary Matters; Photo by Christopher Duggan

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Alex Wong got his cast off, New York City Ballet’s Kathryn Morgan is heading to Prada, Houston Ballet’s Melissa Hough feels narcoleptic after the fall rep, and Miami City Ballet’s Rebecca King is taking five before a Bugaku rehearsal. How do I know all this? Simple, I follow them on Twitter.

I was born to chirp random thoughts over a noisy bed of chatter. I grew up in a loud, Italian-American family, where you had to fight to be heard. Twitter works for me as a way to keep informed, inform others, and just stay connected to my field. Dancers hopped on the micro-blogging network faster than they did Facebook. You can find high-profile ballet dancers intermission tweeting, choreographers broadcasting details about their next show or the So You Think You Can Dance clan updating their gaggles of followers. Twitter is a cross section of life as it dances by.

Founded in 2006 by Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Evan Williams, Twitter was originally designed as a way for people to broadcast their whereabouts or status to friends. Users had other ideas. In fact, no other social media platform has been more shaped by its participants than Twitter. The popular “RT” (Retweet) is a perfect example of something first started by users, then adapted by Twitter.

Once individual ballet dancers like San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and ABT’s Daniil Simkin joined the tweetstream, dance companies like Ballet Austin and Houston Ballet followed. The Twitter voice of any dance company determines the effectiveness of its communication.Just broadcasting your show details rarely works here, while pithy inside comments or insights engage and tease your followers. Curiously, independent choreographers are less active on Twitter than individual dancers and companies.

For Drew Jacoby, of Jacoby & Pronk, Twitter mixes business and entertainment. “I am a freelancer, so it’s a necessity for me,” says Pronk. I hear her pain. Freelancing means seeking out more gigs, assignments, and a lively net presence. “I am sillier on my personal account,” says Jacoby. “The networking possibilities are great. I always mention where I am performing. I try to follow interesting organizations and people.”

Jacoby built her network by searching “ballet” and “dance.” I did the same thing to get started. I followed every name that popped up. I have since trimmed my twitter tree down from 1,400 to 700.

Jacoby, a dancelebrity herself, has broader interests in her follow choices. “I like that slice-of-life quality coming directly from that person. I get a glimpse of what’s inside their mind, what their personality is like,” she says. “I also like that we are in control. We have a voice. I love it when non-dance people follow me.”

Jacoby has since become a more discerning tweeter. “I unfollow people who hog the feed.” She has a point: Overtweet at your own risk. I have days when I manically tweet and retweet. Other days I’m missing in action. Don’t get too paranoid about it, advises choreographer and Design Brooklyn co-founder Sydney Skybetter. “Twitter is pure syntax. It’s 140 characters, do with it what you will,” says Skybetter, New York’s reigning dance social media geek. There are no guiding principles. It’s the wild west out there.”

Skybetter sees some central advantages with Twitter. “With Facebook, updating your status more than once a day annoys people. With Twitter, you can share info more quickly,” he says. “Posts tend to get lost on Facebook; on Twitter there’s a different shelf life as a tweet can re-circulate longer.” Skybetter is right, if you follow your mentions, you can watch a sassy tweet travel all over the place.

The choreographer also cleverly—with style and intrigue—enlists Twitter to build a buzz about his upcoming shows. I followed Skybetter’s every tweet leading up to his company’s performance on the Inside/Out series at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. His tweets reflected how honored they felt to perform at the Pillow. For those following him from afar, the emotion of the experience was palpable. “It was frackin awesome,” he remembers about performing at the Pillow, tweeting and all.

The creative possibilities inherent in limitations appeal to dancer and choreographer Lisa Niedermeyer. We connected while live tweeting using the hashtag #DUSA at the Dance/USA conference in Washington, DC. A hashtag designates a topic/idea/event with the # sign, which allows you to use the search function. During the conference, a live feed of tweets scrolled on the screen during some of the sessions and on the Dance/USA website. It’s one handy way of knowing what the guy behind you is thinking. By the time Niedermeyer and I grabbed lunch, we already had an idea of each other’s interests. It’s like starting a friendship in the middle.

“It’s fun composing a tweet. For me it’s more of a collaboration tool, less of a come-see-my-show tool,” says Niedermeyer, who has danced with Jane Comfort and Doug Elkins. “I come from a place of working with narrative and theatrical artists like Jane Comfortwho taught me to look for what story the structure or form of something can tell. The structure of a twitter feed tells a real-time and unedited story of the community that is self organizing. I find it fascinating.”

Once, Niedermeyer de-constructed a review in tweets. “I blew it apart into juicy bits,” she says. “Twitter is more nuanced than Facebook; it’s not just a place to blast information.” Not remotely interested in building her brand, developing hoards of followers, or moving into “twinfluential” (twitter slang for being influential) status we could say “a twitter star”, Neidermeyer’s “handle,” (username) “MsRemixt,” says it all.

It’s not unusual to tweet from a handle different than your name, as it gives you a chance to play with your persona. Your profile can inform followers of your real name, website, or blog. Niedermeyer sets her TweetDeck to search “redefine,” “remix,” “reimagine” and “repurpose” to connect to like-minded folk. Platforms like Tweetdeck and HootSuite help users track their mentions, follow lists of people, and search key words. (The new Twitter is pretty snazzy too.) “Regardless if those people are in dance, I want to know what they are thinking,” she says.

Twitter isn’t just all about you. It took me my first 600 “read my story” tweets to figure that out. These days, I am just as likely to retweet a cool article in, say, Dance Magazine, tell you about a great show I saw, or some random, possibly silly thought that’s floating across my mind.

Editing elevates all that we do. Twitterese pushes us into being succinct in a way that can be downright fun. As Niedermeyer says, “Who better than a choreographer to be creative within a structure?”

Update: Twitter endless tweaks itself, making it easier and easier to use. I continue to follow dance people on twitter because I don’t know a better way to keep up with the flurry of activity happening in my field all at once.  Yet, I also believe that not everyone needs to be on twitter, like my dear mom.  I’m one of the few who doesn’t mind if you tweet your lunch. I follow food writers, they know how tweet lunch with style.  Since this piece was published Martha Graham became a trending topic the day of the Graham Google doodle, I won best “arts tweeter” from Houston Press, Google + emerged as the new shiny social media thing, and I watched Lisa Niedermeyer get ready for 45 minutes as part of Jane Comfort’s Beauty at Jacob’s Pillow.  I often  know what airport Drew Jacoby is in at any given minute thanks to her tweets, while  Sydney Skybetter continues his double life as Artistic Director of Skybetter and Associates and Founding Partner of Edwards & Skybetter | Change Agency, along with Jennifer Edwards.  Skybetter is  still my go-to smart techno arts geek of choice.  Edwards & Skybetter land on Houston shores to consult with Fresh Arts Coalition this fall. I still hold out hopes to get a grant for my work as a hashtag artist #delusionalandlovingit.

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