Where dance is given a speaking part

Jeanne Ruddy Dance's Ian Dodge is reflected in mirrors during rehearsal with choreographer Jane Comfort (in black), Meredith Riley (on floor), Janet Pilla.

New York choreographer Jane Comfort is torn. With just a few hours of rehearsal time left in Philly for a piece she is thinking about calling I Am Not a Bad Dog, there are decisions to be made.

"Whether I want to put a helicopter behind it, or wind chimes," she says.

Hmm. Sounds like a not-insignificant decision, mood-wise.

But there are other matters to take care of on this Friday afternoon inside the Performance Garage at 1515 Brandywine St., a converted auto body shop that was itself a converted horse carriage house and now is home to Jeanne Ruddy Dance.

Like timing the dancers' speaking parts, for one.

"Voice is very big in dance," says Christine Taylor, an original member of the company founded seven years ago by Ruddy, 53, a Miami native and former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

This is the first season the Ruddy dancers are breaking through their "fourth wall" with speech. For their 2007 program, to be performed April 12 to 14 and 19 to 21, Ruddy has choreographed a work, Oceans I: Wetlands, that includes a full on-stage narration, plus photography and video. Composer Ellen Fishman-Johnson created the music. Various dancers have spoken parts. ("I say 'extinction,' " says Thayne Dibble, 19, the youngest Ruddy dancer.) Also on the bill is Ann Reinking's Songs Without Words, with a score by Dudley Moore, commissioned and premiered by Ruddy in 2004.

On this afternoon, the last of her four days in Philadelphia - "I never in my life made a piece this fast," she says - Comfort is lining up sound effects on her laptop for the work, which she describes as the story of "a failed citizens brigade" that grew out of workshops last fall with Ruddy dancers.

Comfort, whose text and dance work have greatly impressed New York critics with their wit and passion, is particularly enamored of a soundbite of frightening, guttural military commands in an indeterminate language. (She had hoped to use Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" but couldn't get the requisite permission.)

She must make sure dancer Janet Pilla's head is not buried in the torso of dancer Sun-Mi Cho when she speaks her lines. ("How can that be?" "You sure about that?" "Are you done trying?") And that the group ululation (these dancers in fact do ululate rather nicely) lasts through the first command.

"If we can add some falls, I'd like to see how it sounds with the glass breaking," she says.

Comfort is the latest of the out-of-town choreographers brought in by Ruddy to create works for her company, including Broadway choreographer Reinking, Mark Dendy, Peter Sparling and Igal Perry. Ruddy has created or commissioned 16 works in all, resulting in a company that incorporates both her own neoclassical Graham style and more experimental "downtown" performance aesthetics. But she insists that all the dances cling to a narrative mast, however absurdist (in the case of Comfort) or weighty (Ruddy's issue-oriented works).

The company's origins, in fact, lie with Ruddy's own past, a bout with breast cancer that prompted her in 1999 to stage a work titled Four Women Screaming. The company grew from there, with works about abuse of women, and, this season, environmental threats to the wetlands, inspired by her kayaking trips in South Jersey.

Watching Comfort work with her dancers, figuring out falls and improv lines and dog commands, Ruddy, who came to Philadelphia in 1993 with her husband, Center City lawyer Victor Keen, stated the obvious: "My piece," she said, "is much more serious."

The peripatetic Comfort, meanwhile, has made one last decision. She ditched I Am Not a Bad Dog as a working title in favor of Short Term Memory.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.