Jane Comfort and Company - Persephone, Three Bagatelles for the Righteous, Underground River
The Joyce Theatre
New York, NY
October 9, 2004
Persephone was danced to live music. The first sound you hear is a plaintive flute. The lights rise on a group of dancers dressed in white, perhaps to echo the white marble of Greek statues (which is a modern memory since there is evidence that ancient marble statues were often painted). The dancers perform right angle arm movements that reminded me of Pascal Rioult's Bolero, but just a hint of a reminder because the tone and tempo of this dance is totally different (slower) than Bolero.
The costumes are not the only thing that is white. The stage is covered with a white marley floor. The dancers perform libational movements. The lighting becomes very bright. Sometimes in dance the lighting is set to be dim, or worse dim and blue, to create a mood (and often inadvertently put overworked dance fans to sleep). Not this time. Between the actual brightness of the lighting and the reflective qualities of the white floor and backdrop, the audience was in stimulus heaven, or just heaven, depending on your allegorical mood.
A black man enters the stage, He is very jarring just by being there. Not because he is black, but because he is wearing a bright red costume that contrasts with all of the whiteness of the rest of the stage. Even with the black man now on stage, the dancers continue their languid movements.
They do some very nice hip rolls.
Demeter places a scarf around Persephone's neck. As with much in this first section, there is no apparent reason why (although this and much else in Act I will make sense once you see Act II and III, but I didn't know that during Act I because while I may be a dance critic I still live a linear life).
The black man in red takes Persephone off. Demeter, who is played by a black woman, is distraught. She is so distraught that she starts ripping up the tape holding down the marley floor. She flips the floor back to reveal its black underside. Normally modern dancers do dance on a marley floor. I have never seen any dance with a marley floor, so this is a first. It was very well done, and not just because it was unexpected. The other dancers pull the marley strips back.
In Act II we are in Hades with red lights and neon. Red (i.e. Hades, the person) spins the woman on his back. Red and Persephone dance a somewhat Capoeira-esque encounter: much low to the ground roundhouse kicking. I think to myself, "Finally they are moving."
Persephone seems to be seduced and happy. Both dancers use the entire stage with enthusiasm.
They sit back and a troupe of Hades jesters take the stage in multi-colored outfits. Now it is Persephone who stands out, white on black. After watching the jesters for a while she joins them. I think she finds the motion liberating. She has the freedom to shake her head.
Now Persephone hears her mother's moaning coming from above. Has her mother become a formalist baby?
Everyone is very energetic as the jesters dance in a circle around Persephone. Persephone reprises the hip rolls. This suggests that her life energy was always present, even if it took some help to get it to emerge.
The jesters leave. Persephone lies down with Red, but her mother is still bawling, causing Persephone much grief and generally interrupting things.
At the beginning of Act III, Demeter is alone, oohing to herself. Persephone enters and starts oohing in response. They have a joyous reunion. Demeter tries to give the white scarf back to Persephone, but Persephone has already accepted Red's red scarf.
Demeter's people start putting the white floor back. They start the formal right angle movements they were performing at the beginning of Act I. Demeter's people have more energy now than they did in Act I. Persephone appears to play the role usually reserved for Queen Latifah, and may be the cause of this increase of energy.
Persephone has a very well defined part in her hair (but this is really apropos of nothing).
The dancing in Act III is similar to the dancing in Act I, but the dancing in Act III is more interesting to watch, largely because they move more.
Red appears and takes Persephone back. Persephone leaves her red scarf behind. Her mother falls over backwards in despair.
This is an amusing political satire sure to offend both sides. The candidates, John Kerry and George Bush, are like puppets in their handlers' hands. They lip synch to real Kerry and Bush voices.
Four dancers walk onto stage. A fish goes by above them. The floor of the stage looks purple in the light for while.
The dancers sing like a strange a cappella group. The dancing, at first, looks like some interesting jumping around the stage.
A skeletal umbrella with ribbons descends from above.
The dancers remove ribbons from the umbrella and make a one or two foot tall ribbon dancer puppet that all four manipulate with attached sticks. The ribbon dancer does a stylish 70's disco routine. The ribbon dancer swims and flies. They manage to make an inanimate object look completely energetic and alive.
Somewhere in the midst of this fanciful sequence it becomes clear that the dancers represent the inner life of a child in a coma. What had looked like random jumping around begins to take on meaning.
Each big dance sequence, where dancers may carry each other across the stage, or jump on top of each other, represents great effort to make small movements "above" in the real world, such as blinking her eyes to say yes or no, or squeezing her hand in her parents' hands.
The four dancers make paper birds from flash cards and make them soar to soaring classical music. They play with the ribbon dancer again who watches a bird. They make a sun shade out of their clothing and the umbrella to let the ribbon dancer rest.
They start spiritual humming. Feathers fall. She doesn't respond. Maybe the feathers are tears. The lights go dark.
Both Persephone and have meaning that creeps up on the audience as the works progress, somewhat like Alvin Ailey's Apex. I liked the dancing and choreography itself. The way the company successfully expressed meaning was commendable. While Act I of Persephone makes sense in the context of Acts II and III, I would still want to see it tightened up a bit so that it does a better job of standing on its own. The tearing up the floor bit is brilliant, but the whole of Act I is just longer than it needs to be to make its point. I especially liked the subtle way that Persephone turns the value judgments of the ancient story on its head. Normally, Hades is the villain of the story and Persephone's half year exile in the underworld is a condition to be lamented. Jane Comfort's version suggests that the energy of night and winter can be a force for life and good. Demeter becomes the figure with qualities of restrictive child rearing, possessiveness, and excessive formalism that are open to criticism. This reversal is unexpected because the underworld normally represents death.
The ribbon dancer in Underground River, both the idea and execution of it, is truly amazing.
Jane Comfort and Company have shown an ability to make people think while dancing beautifully. Hopefully they will have opportunities to present their work to larger audiences.
Jane Comfort and Company
Artitistic Director: Jane Comfort
Performers: Jessica Anthony, Kathleen Fisher, Aleta Hayes, Lisa Niedermeyer, Stephen Nunley, Peter Sciscioli, Cynthia Beuschel Svigals, Olase Freeman, Elizabeth Haselwood, David Neumann, Joseph Ritsch, Darrin Wright
Musicians: Tigger Benford, Martha Partridge, Peter Jones, James Schlefer
Manager: Caterina Bartha
Lighting: David Ferri
Costumes: Liz Prince