Jane Comfort’s Unvarnished America

Jane Comfort.

Year: 2020/2021
DanceForce Member: Cynthia Williams
Artist: Jane Comfort and Company
Community Partner: Hobart & William Smith Colleges Dance Department
Audience: 135
County: Ontario

The Jane Comfort and Company project October 27-29, 2022 was 3 years in the planning. Supported by a MAAF Arts Connect grant, Jane Comfort, Elsie Management, and the three presenters discussed all the parameters of the tour when applying; and again, as Covid shifted the dates (twice) and we faced new challenges. It included a master class in dance composition with a focus on text and movement taught by Comfort; a master class in dance technique/somatic improvisation by Gabrielle Revlock, and the performance of “Jane Comfort’s Unvarnished America.” Other outreach activities originally considered were let go as the 2022 compressed residency time-line worked against us. Comfort’s post-concert talk back was well received with audience members expressing admiration for the scope and impact of her work. 

For years our audience was robust and curious about contemporary dance; it comprised students, faculty members, and local and regional community members. Comfort’s astute, witty, political, and engaging work was perfectly suited for our venue, and the relevance of her work is as apparent today as when it was first created. Posters were distributed two weeks in advance, our NPR affiliate ran ads several times a day for 10 days prior, the local paper ran two feature articles, and the HWS website posted a full article. Every effort was made to attract an audience and yet we had the lowest attendance of any concert in years…It is hard to tell if this is a post-Covid new reality, or whether other factors were at play.   

Jane Comfort’s “Unvarnished America” is a powerful collection of excerpts and short pieces from Comfort’s 40 years of choreography. The scope of work is breathtaking, and the political and social relevance of pieces like “Bites,” the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill section of “S/He,” “American Rendition,” and “Beauty” is undeniable. Comfort’s choreography often makes us uncomfortable, and asks us to examine the values we hold and acknowledge the isms we prefer to ignore. College-age audience members, too young to know of the Culture Wars, the Thomas/Hill Supreme Court hearings,  or the issue of renditions and torture, were taken aback by the power of Comfort’s art to expose these issues in a dance concert, something they thought would be merely entertaining. One wrote “The topics presented in this concert are deeply disturbing and destabilizing, but extremely relevant and important even years later…The material is triggering, and that’s the point…” while another noted “Comfort’s choreography is layered with meaning…Unvarnished America forces its audience to visualize social justice issues, and question our role in them…” For the audience, the impact was palpable.