"It was right there," the choreographer recalls. "I was sitting in the balcony."
At the time, Comfort was an undergraduate art major who'd transferred to Chapel Hill after two years at UNC-Greensboro. "I was a member of the fine arts committee, and on my recommendation they invited Merce to come down. The only reason I knew about Merce is because my teacher in Greensboro referred to him as 'the master,'" she says. "So I volunteered to iron the costumes for his company. And seeing him dance changed my life."
Regional audiences last saw her work when the American Dance Festival presented Act 1 of Asphalt, her collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux and Toshi Reagon, in 2000.
Friday night, Comfort's company reprises her 2003 interpretation of Persephone to live music by composer Tigger Benford and ensemble, and Underground River, an enigmatic 1998 collaboration with Reagon and experimental puppeteer Basil Twist.
For all of its conventionality, Persephone was a departure for the New York-based choreographer. It was the first time in 20 years that she'd ever used a linear narrative to make "something like a mainstream dance. You know--to music, on a set, about a story. Up until then I'd always deconstructed everything."
The dance's subject matter--and lack of irony--was also a calculated risk for her native downtown audiences: "It's hardwired into our brains that only Martha Graham can do myth, and you have to use Graham's vocabulary, not downtown vocabulary," Comfort notes.
But in the choreographer's hands, the story of one woman's seasonal transit between the under and the upper worlds turns into what James Hillman calls a soul journey into her unconscious self, for self-enlightenment. "So it's not exactly the myth," she says, "because she changes down there, and when she comes back she's different. She's someone who can converse with two worlds, unlike her mother."
After Aleta Hayes' Demeter rips up the white marley flooring of the first section to reveal what lies beneath, Keith Sonnier's vivid set of neon and fiber optic sculpture discloses an underworld of desire and delirium.
Underground River plumbs different psychological depths--those of a girl named Cara, a child in a coma. Though few topics might seem less promising for choreography, Comfort assembles four dancers who also function as singers and puppeteers to represent different aspects of the girl's personality: facets who illustrate, guard and ultimately liberate the vivid internal, imaginational life of the child.
"Both of these protagonists are actively choosing," Comfort says. "Certainly Cara is in her situation, and Persephone is in hers. Even though however they got to where they were wasn't their choice, they choose from there."
What strikes Comfort about both works are their shared provenance. "It's my secret joke," she says. "Not many people know they constitute my 'mother's lament' evening." At first, the choreographer didn't know it herself. She related the gradual discovery when we spoke with her by phone in New York last week.
"I received a commission in which I had 10 days to do a piece at Jacob's Pillow, and I wasn't getting anything. One morning, the phrase 'a woman in a coma' struck with me big time. I didn't know anybody in a coma; I never had.
"I was just coming out of neurosurgery that year, doing physical therapy and not sure if I would ever dance again. And my daughter had just come from lower school to middle school. In lower school she was so creative, so constant, you couldn't put her near anything that she wouldn't create something with it. And somehow when she got to middle school it all became about memorizing facts. I just felt like I was losing my daughter. So that sort of became a metaphor. Then it became a kind of metaphor for the artist's dichotomy; trying to keep your inner world enchanted and your artist's life alive in reality.
"So I knew there were a lot of levels to this, and I kept talking about those levels, and yet I would cry a lot in rehearsals for no reason, with no idea why this was getting to me.
"After we'd put the piece up I was at a party with a fellow choreographer, telling her how I couldn't figure out my own responses about this idea of loss and the loss of a child, when she said, 'Jane, your son is going to college in the fall.'
"And I said, 'Oh my God. You're right.' And I burst into tears--again--while grabbing at these cocktail napkins in the middle of this party, dabbing at my eyes. The whole time I'd made this piece I'd denied myself the knowledge that, on some level, this was a mourning piece for him. So that was when the next layer became 'revealed' to me.
"And then, when my daughter went to college, I knowingly made my Persephone."
Comfort remains uncomforted that the university that had no dance department when she was here still functions without one. "Please say that I am shocked," she says at one point. "I really am." Nonetheless, her company stands ready to demonstrate what dance can bring to a university when they perform there this Friday night.