Comfort's gleeful 'S/HE' takes stick to stereotypes

October 19, 1994|By J.L. Conklin | J.L. Conklin,Special to The Sun

Baltimore has a tradition of being a place where Broadway-bound productions came to hone their shows, where companies can get the kinks out in front of an audience. In keeping with this tradition, New York choreographer Jane Comfort brought her work-in-progress, "S/HE," to Towson State University over the weekend.

"S/HE" is scheduled to open in in January at the Joyce Theater in New York.

While billed a work-in-progress, Ms. Comfort's 90-minute piece -- presented Saturday night as part of the school's New Performance Project -- felt nearly complete in content. There were a few rough spots, but Ms. Comfort and her seven dancers imaginatively and dramatically explored the impact of our gender-biased cultural expectations. Even if Ms. Comfort didn't give us any answers, she posed thought-provoking questions about our prejudices.

Beginning with a duet (a rap lip-sync number that needs work as it was difficult to understand the words), "S/HE" sets the theme. The man in the piece is Ms. Comfort and the woman is Andre Shoals. When they remove their hair pieces and costumes to reveal their true genders, the effect was anticipated yet still surprising.

Role and race reversal are the main motifs. Using gender-based postures and gestures, the dancers cross dance as well as cross dress. The men daintily cross their legs, the women open theirs. Macho struts and wiggle walks magnify and evolve into movements of flamenco and fighting, mixed both choreographically and physically.

The following sections zeroed in on images seen in advertising, but Ms. Comfort's vision is Madison Avenue's nightmare. A nude man posed seductively on a couch, another wore panty hose. In an 11 o'clock Coke break a woman removes her shirt. And the Wonderbra is transformed into the Wonderjock. The concepts become ludicrous.

But Ms. Comfort's stronger sections deal with today's hot issues: spouse abuse, job discrimination, sexual harassment. The audience sympathizes with the oppressed -- whether it was a visibly pregnant Joseph Ritsch, who loses his job and is abused by his wife (Nancy Alfaro), or Mr. Anita Hill (Mr. Ritsch), who is plucked naked by a chorus of stomping senators.

Ms. Comfort uses movement as metaphor, supporting or subverting her accompanying music and text. She selects a waltz when the boss tells Mr. Ritsch of the corporate dead-end job, a square dance for a harried dinner scene, rhythmic unison stepping to show the mindset of the senators. "S/HE" gleefully clashes stereotypes, and the resulting dissonance is as exciting as it is disturbing.

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