"Uh oh," Jane Comfort sighs. "There we go down the rabbit hole again." New York City is reaching for record highs of a hundred degrees outside. Inside her apartment, Comfort is talking about doctor visits. Women are having their genitals made prettier. Comfort only recently heard of labiaplasty. Today, as Comfort's dance company takes a breather before performing her new socio-linguistic performance piece Beauty at Vassar College, the Guggenheim Fellow shares in on the fascinating research that left her horrified.
Okay, so once in a while Comfort sounds like any nagging mother. But she doesn’t live under the stairs. For the past two decades, Comfort has courageously spun out new modes of performance. Her work is a postmodern bond between dance, theater, language, and puppetry. Through toe points and curtseys, Comfort’s choreography has given social commentary a poetic groom—a turn away from the typically biting playground of politics. And while she may come off as a critic that’s been fired up mid-chat, Beauty tackles Barbie in a different, zanier way than past attacks on the doll's role in feminist disciplines. That is to say, Jane Comfort and Company examine gender and gentility, sexism and racism, compassionately. Using humor, wit, and the discipline of dancers not only entertains, but allows Comfort and Co. to set the stage for activism.
Because the thing is, it would be asinine to still think that by putting the toilet seat down Barbie could be suffocated, or that by pulling her legs apart we would be rendered self-improved. Who would we be fooling? She's our childhood, our innocence; she was our appetite for development. Comfort dares us to retain—in the end—that very enchantment; isn't that the quality which has immortalized Barbie? But Barbie has always been a doll. By blaming her we entrap ourselves in the archaic ideations of beauty. And by narrowing in on that age-old question of whether beauty is only skin deep, we'd never have the dedication it takes to work on a monthly magazine. Plus, sometimes a doll really is just a doll tagging along for a family vacation. And part of what makes a woman beautiful is her ability to play artist on her own imperfect self.
When Ruth Handler introduced Barbie in 1959, she didn’t want any story attached to the doll whatsoever, because she wanted the girls to create it all out of their own imagination. How is your performance Beauty about the female’s imagination?
JANE COMFORT: That’s not the thrust of the piece so much as it’s about all the paginations women go through to try and achieve what, I think, the media presents to them as the cultural norm of beauty in America. I have been saying for years that it has been moving more and more towards Barbie. It’s with the hair extensions and the huge plastic boobs and the anorexic body and the stilettos. Recently when I heard women were waxing all their pubes off, instead of just that little Velcro strip, I thought, that’s it—that’s it. It’s so Barbie. All we don’t do is wear those polyester clothes.
How have men reacted to Beauty? Did they recognize themselves in the women or realize the influence they have over them?
Men were so confused by so many things that went on. There is one section where a woman is standing in her underwear and a doctor is marking all the things he is either going to lipo out or add in. She keeps buying more procedures as they go along, so her whole body becomes marked up with a magic marker. Sitting with the live audience was so interesting because you see the women laughing, and see the men leaning into the women—obviously asking what was going on. They would have to relate back to him and explain. Then the men would be shaking their heads. [Laughs] Every single performance—we’ve had six of them—was like that.
With pageants today, 30 to 50 Barbies are trying to beat out their competition. What are your thoughts on the Toddlers & Tiaras phenomenon?
The pageant thing is just so sick. It must be the mothers. And on the other hand, there’s Photoshop. We actually do a photoshopping session in the piece where you see a woman get photographed and then her image is put up on the screen. The editor begins asking, ‘Is she black?—yes, so her nose is narrowed and her lips are taken down. He has her arms brought in, her breasts made bigger, her waist smaller, hips smaller, everything smaller. And then he says she looks a bit short. ‘Could you lengthen her?’ And [then he] whitens her skin. You watch this progression, and the reaction from the audience is that they are just gasping. I’m so glad people can actually see the process.
Did you have doubts before Beauty reached a live audience?
Everybody 'knows' about photoshopping but I don’t think they see how incredibly extreme it is. The dancer in the company who agreed to have this happen to her said she can’t even watch it because it’s so upsetting to her. At the end, she looks like a glamorous model, and then it makes her feel like she is just this blob before. The piece is bracketed by a beauty contest. The people in the audience are asked to look at their programs; if they have a stamp on it then they are the judges who vote for the winner. The winner can be different every night, but often the woman who is photoshopped ends up winning. At one point, one of the four Barbies was getting very paranoid that she hadn’t won. I’m afraid that maybe one is going to win more than the others and what that would do to the dancers' group dynamic. I brought that up a few times and everybody is like ‘Eh, we’re tough.’ We put ourselves in the audience’s hands.
Do the judges ever have to explain their choice?
We haven’t had them. But what we’ve found is, they think no matter how they vote, we already had a predetermined winner. The second night, a young girl from the audience volunteered to come up and count the votes. It ended up being a tie between two women, so the young girl had to call it. She decided the winner was the woman who had gotten photoshopped, so people still thought it was rigged. It says something I haven’t figured out yet, about an attitude toward performance—that if something is a performance it is performed or particular audiences have a distrust of organizations.
Which scene in Beauty touched you as most real?
There’s a scene that obliquely references the bathing suit section of a beauty contest. But [in Beauty] it’s rather hypnotic, and you see that a lot of the women don’t really walk well in heels, and are struggling, but they have to walk in unison. At one point, they just stand on stage way too long—longer than it would feel right—and they just look at the audience. It is probably one of my favourite moments in the show because they aren’t performing. They are just standing there, and allowing themselves to be seen.
Based on the reactions, are people seeing themselves in these women or are people finding they don’t want to?
See that would be a question I might have for the audience next time. When the judges are asked to vote for one of the four Barbies, it isn’t explained what they are voting on. Over the course of the evening, you get to know these women on a lot of different levels. They become real characters that talk about their own beauty practices. Whoever wins the beauty pageant is crowned, and whoever the three losing Barbies are that night go over to the dressing table and they deconstruct. They take off the false eyelashes, wipe the make up off, remove the hair falls, and change their clothes on stage. All of a sudden you see them with their real breasts, leaving as dancers with their dance bags. They are playing with a lot of layers.
How do you think people can keep themselves sincere?
It is very hard to fight the media. To be a woman, and to have everything you see telling you, 'Being this skinny is beautiful’—or if sex is all about pornography—then it is really hard to keep sincere goals for yourself, or to even know what the goal is.
The industry often targets certain women. Lara Stone, for example, has become one of the world’s top fashion models, but the media’s tendency is to concentrates on her 'voluptuous' weight. It’s perplexing. You are given attention for your difference (even a healthy difference) yet the attention can make you self-conscious about having stuck out in the first place. You get to a point, where no attention is good.
I grew up incredibly thin, and was considered a freak up 'til I got boobs and hips. All of a sudden people wanted to take me out on dates, and I was the popular girl. [Laughs.] It’s just this reward system going on all the time. And yet now, if I had been that skinny—if skinniness had been the norm back in the day—I guess it would have been considered really great.
When you pitched Beauty, were people receptive?
People were fascinated, I must say. Colleges are very interested. Dance festivals are very interested because they usually have young dancer programs where you are getting girls in their most vulnerable age—like 12 to 14 year old dancers—who are just starting to develop, and put on weight, and they might be getting messages in their ballet school that they're fat when they are not. But they won’t say it like that in the schools. They’ll say ‘You have a voluptuous line,’ or, ‘You’ve lost your line.’ It is definitely going to be great to take Beauty to populations like that. But I would love to take it to L.A.
You have to. For the piece you pair Beauty with, did you look into the media as well?
No. It’s called Underground River. I made it quite a while ago, in ’98. It’s about a young girl who is in a coma and what you see on the stage is going on in her mind. It’s an enchanted place she is living in. And what you hear on the sound system is the voice of her parents and her doctor who are trying to bring her back to their reality. It is a little bit of tug-of-war between two different realities and what is 'being well.' It is a statement about being an artist. We all have to keep that alive in ourselves. I made it at a time when my daughter was going from lower school to middle school—from a world of enchantment where you are encouraged to be so incredibly creative to where everything was memorized and rote. She was becoming very depressed. How do you retain [that enchantment] as a person, as an artist?
You come across as someone who is personally immune to these very issues. They are serious and concern you, but it’s almost like you don’t allow yourself to be influenced.
Oh, no. I was so happy when I was able to carve out a few hours and go get highlights. While I was making this piece, I couldn’t get to yoga or the gym, and I am actually on a diet right now. I’m not extreme at all, but I’m just like any other woman. I wear makeup. In fact, I don’t go out of the house without makeup.
All images photographed by Arthur Elgort.