Carolyn Dorfman is a thinker. Ideas as much as movement drive her choreography. She attributes her philosophical bent to her formative years as the youngest in an extended European Jewish family of Holocaust survivors. “I grew up in two worlds,” she says, as a first-generation American living among European mannerisms, rituals, traditions, and approach to life.
At times obviously and then sometimes very subtly, Dorfman’s work is influenced by her heritage. “If my work is about a Jewish theme or not,” she says, “it is infused with the philosophy that shaped me as person, and that came out of a Jewish legacy.”
The Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, based in Millburn, performs two pieces, “Odisea” and the prologue to “Living Room Music,” in “Dances in the Garden,” a shared concert with Julia Ritter Performance Group, Randy James Dance Works, and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Thursday, February 16, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
Dorfman’s parents were from Poland. During World War II, her mother was in a concentration camp, and her father fought in the underground. Her parents lost a lot of family, but Dorfman says she probably knows 10 survivors of Auschwitz. Her family background was “the single most important thing that shaped me as a human being, being the youngest of my siblings and my cousins. It impacted my sense of justice, equality, and the value of life—things that were so critical to my parents and family.”
Her parents married in Germany and came to the United States after the war. Her father was an independent pork producer, her mother a homemaker. “My parents chose life when they came to America,” she says. As a result, she believes there is an inherent optimism in her work.
Dorfman focuses her thought not solely on abstractions, but also on understanding the human condition — not at all surprising, given her background. “I am fascinated by the human psyche,” she says. “I would be a psychologist if I were not a dancer and artist.”
This lens for looking at the world makes for dances that are complex. “I am interested in movement metaphor,” she says, “in things symbolizing other things — not just the straight story.” Although she describes some of her works as more purely abstract, she says there is “always a balance between abstraction and narrative.”
Dorfman’s attentiveness to human motivation is reflected in her “center-driven” approach to movement. What that means, says Dorfman, is that “you don’t move unless there’s a reason. Movement is generated by the desire to communicate.”
“Odisea,” pronounced oh-dih-SAY-ah, is the Greek word for journey or odyssey and was commissioned last year by Jewish Heritage New York to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the first Jews landing in America. Although “Odisea” tells the story of 23 Jews who fled from persecution in Recife, Brazil, and finally arrived in New Amsterdam, Dorfman sees the dance as emblematic of the immigrant experience. “The story resonates beyond the Jewish story,” she says. “It is the story of every immigrant who comes here.” For a while, things are good in the “old country,” then life gets harder, persecution follows, and then they flee to America — with a great sense of hope.
“Odisea” alludes to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, as it opens with cathedral bells and dancers using gestures from Catholic ritual. Many of the Jews who remained in Spain were conversos, or hidden Jews, who had converted in fear of their lives. Dorfman describes them as “people who are being forced to be what they are not.” Alongside the Catholic imagery, she says, are glimpses of a tallis, or Jewish prayer shawl, and people praying while rocking back and forth, which “gives an insight about who these people really are.”
The music, she says, reflects the Jewish odyssey through history; it includes a composition by Cecelia Margulies as well as a Sefardic, or Spanish-Jewish, version of the Kol Nidre prayer chanted on the eve of Yom Kippur. Some believe this prayer, about renouncing vows for the coming year, was said by conversos whose outward actions did not reflect their inner religious vows. The orchestration for Spanish guitar and accordion is by Greg Wall. The costuming evokes the 16th century, with women in long dresses and lace and men in knickers and black tights.
Dorfman’s company will also perform the prologue to “Living Room Music,” a dance from 1994 that provides a simultaneous glimpse into four different apartments. The conceptual backdrop, Dorfman says, is the contrast between the “beautiful people” — “perfect, no problems, glamorous, no cellulite” — from Glamour magazine and the realities of human life. Dorfman asks serious philosophical questions in this piece: What are your dreams and your realities? Can you overcome the reality, and can your fantasy actually be a reality if you think about it differently? “Often we distinguish between fantasy and reality as a line we can’t penetrate,” she says. “Maybe there is a way to cross over.”
Reconstructing an older piece from the repertory like “Living Room Music” presents its own set of challenges, says Dorfman. “There is a struggle between what it was and what it will be when it comes back to life.” First, the choreographer must be true to the work’s history and the other dancers who have done it. But in the process of bringing a dance back to the stage, she says, “the dancers have to re-create what was and personalize it. You may make changes because of body type or see something in a dancer that makes you go in different directions.”
Dorfman explains how she transmutes her own thoughts and perceptions into a vision for a dance. “I work from an idea,” says Dorfman. She then looks for a way to transmit the concept, story, or feeling into the movement of individuals and groups. One example is in “Echad” (One), about the Jewish gift to civilization, where she started to think about the circularity of life in ancient times. “There was no sense of forward motion; people were born, lived, and died in the same place,” she says. She decided to have the dancers travel in a circular pattern. Individuals were anonymous; one person replaces another, and “no person can hold onto an identity.”
“When I look at what I am trying to communicate,” she says, “form follows function. Space, time, and dynamics, or energy, are the three basic elements of the palette.” “Sextet,” she says, stemmed from watching people eating dinner at a restaurant. She noticed how interpersonal dynamics varied in groups of different sizes — “the intensity of two, the shifting focus of three, and so forth.” The resulting dance progresses from duet to trio, quartet, quintet, and finally the full ensemble.
Not only did her approach to choreography come out of her family experience in Southfield, Michigan, where she grew up, but so did her involvement in dance altogether. “I started dancing, as do many kids in suburban Detroit,” she says. She took jazz and tap and loved dancing and moving, but at 12, she wanted to quit. When her father said to her, “I love to watch you dance,” she decided to stay with it.
She got more serious, studying ballet and modern dance and was inspired to become a dance educator after seeing a dance concert at the University of Michigan. The piece that touched her most was the “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor,” choreographed by Doris Humphrey. This dance also introduced her to the Humphrey, Weidman, Limon technique, which was the basis of her training when she entered the University of Michigan; she received a BFA in dance in 1977. Dorfman then moved to the New York University Tisch School for the Arts to get an MFA. While there, she fell in love with choreography.
Dorfman sees choreography as closely allied with teaching, her initial choice for a profession. “Teaching was an interactive dialogue,” she says, “and choreography became another vehicle for that dialogue.” One dialogue is with the dancers, as she creates the work. “Dancers are integral to the creative process,” she says. She watches their impulses and then shapes them, and likes to see their interpretations of what she asks them to do.
The other conversation is with the observers of her dances. “I create work that speaks about the human story,” she says, “but I am also interested in speaking to audiences. That’s why I love residencies and community programs that involve public performance, master classes, and open rehearsals.”
Another approach she is working on is the creation of DVDs that will provide quick information to the audience when the house lights go down. “You might get information about the artist or about some facet of what you will see, then it disappears and the piece continues,” says Dorfman. It won’t focus on the meaning of the piece, she adds, but on “sharing an aspect that lets people feel like you are turning keys and opening doors to the art.”
Dorfman also narrates performances, either sharing insight about something the audience will see or asking questions between pieces. Sometimes she involves the audience in the dance itself. One audience member summoned up the experience, saying, “It felt like you gave everyone a backstage pass.”
In a commissioned work that she is now working on about Sam Maitin, a visual artist in Philadelphia, she is toying with the idea of audience participation. “A hallmark of this artist was the belief in the need to be accessible,” she says. “He was not the least bit elitist.” As a result, it seems fitting to Dorfman to create a section of the dance that, no matter where the performance is, a group of people of varying ages from the audience become a part of who Maitin was.
Sometimes Dorfman likes to simply converse with an audience after a performance and get feedback “People will see images I’ve never seen and draw connections,” she says. “Everybody comes to an art experience with their own history, point of view, and what they just ate for lunch. What they see happening on the stage is the same — but how they perceive, integrate, and are affected by it is different.”
Dorfman started her dance company in 1982 and serves as its artistic director. She has received five choreography fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA) and was the first artist to receive the Prudential Prize for Non-Profit Leadership. She was an assistant professor of Dance at Centenary College for five years, has been a university guest artist and choreographer, and is on the guest faculty at the Limon Institute in New York. She has also been a dance educator in New York and New Jersey, both in schools and with dance professionals.
Dorfman sees her work as evolving as she grows as a human being. One big change, she says, has been the integration of stunning and diverse props and set pieces, “things that extend the movement and change the space,” as well as a greater diversity of composers. “What has evolved is my interest in complexities. My challenge is to create work that can speak but that isn’t didactic.”
Dances from the Garden, Thursday, February 16, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Showcase for New Jersey choreographers Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, Julia Ritter Performance Group, Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, and Randy James Dance Works. $15 to $30. 732-246-7469.