Jane Comfort and rhythm go way back. Watching her new Fleeting Thoughts: Mr. Henderson’s 3AM, I’m reminded at times of her very early pieces like Artificial Horizon (1983). Comfort subjected language (including foreign tongues and signing) to repetitive patterns that deconstructed and taunted meaning. At the same time, she was developing the astute sense of drama and its emotional rhythms that produced such striking text-based works as Cliff Notes: Macbeth (1988) and the 1993 Faith Healing, a dance theater version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, in which Mark Dendy played Amanda Wingfield.
The rhythms of Fleeting Thoughts are provided in part by the extraordinary composer-vocalist Joan La Barbara, who plays occasional delicate piano and electronically augments and layers an array of sung notes and cries. The six dancers contribute speech, song, and syllables. The overarching rhythm of the dance is one of broken-off narratives, of non sequiturs that slide together the way they do in dreams.
There’s no obvious trail through Fleeting Thoughts as there was through Comfort’s 2004 Persephone and other recent works, nor is it overtly political like S/he (1995) and Three Bagatelles for the Righteous (1996). I experience this enigmatic new piece as a treasure hunt for very smart adults. Clues turn out not to be clues, and possible “stories” may metamorphose before you’ve grasped them. Lines, although clearly spoken, hover just below comprehension. Who is Mr. Henderson anyway? At one point it seems he might be a convenient scapegoat for someone else’s transgression. “Not I, not I; he did it!” Fingers are pointed. Near the beginning, Peter Sciscioli stands behind Lisa Niedermeyer, each swinging one arm like a pendulum—riffing off “This is exactly how it started” and “And then it went like this” and shifting gradually out of sync. Is “it” what we’re seeing, or something the “clock” may stand for?
Fleeting Thoughts isn’t intended to be a solvable mystery. In Comfort’s skilled hands (with the assistance of dramaturge Jim Lewis), every fragment has been carefully pondered, meticulously polished, and neatly fitted into the whole. Take the beginning. Olase Freeman backs in wearing white trousers decked with white plastic “feathers” from the knee down, accompanied by La Barbara’s hissing whispers. Every time he falls, she shakes rattles. Meanwhile, two women sit on the floor at one edge of the performance space, intermittently sticking their legs out into a little rectangle of light provided by designer David Ferri. When Freeman has finished rolling and tumbling, all six dancers slither rapidly across the floor on their bellies.
Birds seem to be a motif of sorts—an analogy, perhaps, to the fleeting thoughts of the title. Sciscioli coos like a dove, and Kathleen Fisher and Leslie Cuyjet claw at the air around him. Feathers recur in several of Liz Prince’s marvelously fanciful costumes. Niedermeyer has a silent “dialogue” with her parrot-like left hand. During a duet, Fisher perches on Freeman’s back to think. Facing a softly “ah-ooh”-ing Sciscioli across the room, Jessica Anthony hunkers down and takes a few rocking, bent-legged steps, clumsy as a waterfowl on dry land. Just before the end, Comfort and La Barbara cross the space together, clad in long red dresses and blue cloaks, chortling and shrieking to each other. The piece seems full of voices.
The six give the impression of a society, a little band, their changing costumes suggesting seasonal mutations or special occasions. They rarely dance in unison, although they play subtle copycat or engage in private busyness at the same time. Little dramas occur. In one terrific vignette, Sciscioli and Niedermeyer kick-roll the fallen Anthony into a supine position then kneel beside her. Looking slightly puzzled, they turn her partly over to inspect under her knee, pick up a foot and look between each pair of toes, and pry open her mouth to peer inside. When she arches her back, they gently but firmly push her chest down. (In a later, partial reprise of this, everyone gathers around Freeman, and Niedermeyer whispers into his opened mouth.) The image has a powerful resonance. The two could be scientists engaged in testing a creature, doctors with a patient, detectives searching for clues.
Somehow, the 48-minute piece feels unfinished. To reiterate the dream analogy, maybe you just wake up.