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Flash Review 1, 1-17: Parable for the City
Comfort & Crew Make Gold from Asphalt

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Jane Comfort and Company Tuesday at the Joyce performed the New York premiere of "Asphalt," a work referred to by the company as "an urban dance/opera work," a description that carries too many qualifiers -- a contemporary opera would be fine. Choreographed and directed by Comfort, with book and lyrics by Carl Hancock Rux, vocal score by Toshi Reagon, and instrumental score by DJ Spooky, "Asphalt" is an enchanting work guided by wonderful music and fleshed out with dance. It moves between memory, hope, loss, and fulfillment.

The story revolves around Couchette (Aleta Hayes), a daydreaming dancer, and Racine (Manchild), a DJ, whose past follows him like a shadow. Racine's ancestors manifest themselves as spirits singing Reagon's beautiful gospel-infused songs, often in small groups, aided by offstage vocalists. The songs are mixed with recitations of Rux's elegant, accessible text. The choreography takes on the role of a Greek chorus, with groups of performers repeating quiet gestures in a line, or carrying out the duties of an invisible character. But it plays a primarily supporting role to the excellently produced music, which filled the small house. Comfort, by nature a companionable collaborator, cannot be faulted for wanting to give extra breathing space to her gifted artistic partners.

Manchild and Hayes were appealing in their respective roles. They were ideal companions in this thoroughly modernized opera. Hayes was exuberant and liquid with her movement, and her long limbs and big, expressive hands added punctuation when warranted. Loose and rubbery-jointed, Manchild's signature move was miming a DJ at work. As you might guess from his name, he was the perfect cipher as a both a lost child and smart survivor, and he delivered Rux's text with the right tone: "Music = evidence: living, dying, and everything in between."

The movement is a mix of club dance, hip-hop, and modern. The larger ensemble numbers give the opera some kinetic snap the same way they do in Broadway musicals. When performed by singers as well as dancers, the choreography is simplified to gestures, yet retains its intensity. Comfort has a sense of the composition of the stage at any given moment, and finds the right visual and aural equilibrium. In that regard, "Asphalt" is an appropriate parable for the city, a refined balancing act among groups with different demands.

Sets/props are kept to a minimum. To chants of "what a building has seen... what do you remember from before, Racine?," the performers throw flashlit spots around the stage. A mirrored ball appears for a dance club scene, which goes on a few minutes too long, an exception to an otherwise well-paced evening. More handheld lights, this time multi-colored, scrawl the dancers' gestures in the night air. Most effectively, three rolling door frames provided rich metaphors and a simple, moving ending involving an ethereal Reagon song. At the end, Racine was encouraged to "just take a walk around," and stepped through the door into another world. The audience drew in its breath collectively.

"Asphalt" is repeated Friday night at 8, and Saturday afternoon at 2. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site.

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