Photo: Carolyn Dorfman in the 1980s in “The White Waltz” by Barbara Hayley (Photo by Lois Greenfield), Carolyn Dorfman dancers in “Echad” (Photo by Andre Costantini)
How much can art hold?
Are we asking too much when we wish that it would make meaning out of our lives?
Carolyn Dorfman doesn’t think so; she never has. As founder and artistic director of the Union- and New York City-based modern dance company Carolyn Dorfman Dance, Dorfman has always taken bold swings.
Over the course of 60 dances created for the company that bears her name, this daughter of Holocaust survivors (“I grew up immersed in the joys, sorrows and richness of Eastern European Jewish life,” she says) has operated with the understanding that the past remains ever present, plucking some of the darkest moments from the world stage and examining them beneath the stage lights. Dorfman has done so by deploying her own bold, unapologetically athletic vocabulary rooted in vivid storytelling.
“I confess, I started with the pain,” Dorfman says of her work. “My parents and family spoke in detail of their experiences during the war. . . . In 1983, I was moved to speak about the Holocaust. But how could I? Who was I? I hadn’t been there. It wasn’t my story. It was their story. So, in the end. . . I told mine.”
Dorfman has spent four decades using movement to unpack a series of deeply human stories that manage to resonate widely—about the legacy of the Holocaust, but also about the power of money to lure, ensorcel and ensnare; sustaining a long-term relationship (she celebrates 44 years of marriage this year), motherhood. The company has performed nationally and internationally and continues to work with the K-12 population.
Carolyn Dorfman Dance is set to celebrate this legacy with Dance on Exhibit, a pair of multimedia performances/living exhibits featuring selections from Dorfman’s vast and varied oeuvre. The events, featuring company dancers as sculptures, set for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 15, will unfold in the galleries and onstage at the Morris Museum in Morristown. Performance-only tickets are available through the Morris Museum. The latter performance will be followed by a gala celebration at The Westin Governor Morris.
Rehearsal Director Katlyn Baskin has been with the company since 2011. Baskin, who describes Dorfman’s work as both “athletic and sensitive,” says she was initially drawn to Dorfman’s work because of this universal resonance and relatability.
Baskin points to Dorfman’s “My Father’s Solo,” a portrait of Dorfman’s father and segment of a larger work, 2000–2001’s “Mayne Mentshn” (“My People”): “Dancing in a work about failure, and the strength it takes to get back up and try again, is relatable and enjoyable to share with others, because I know they, too, can relate,” Baskin says. “We are not dancing about princesses and a fantasy; we are creating a world that’s tangible.” Watch “My Father’s Solo” below.
Yes, the details of the world may be Dorfman’s, but it’s a world that many can recognize.
“It is true that every time you see the work of a choreographer, you learn something about them: their lives, influences, passions, questions,” Dorfman says. “Well, now you know how my father looked every day he went to work and, more importantly, the fundamental lessons and legacy he shared.”
Former company member Joan Chiang Paulin now serves as president of the Carolyn Dorfman Dance board of trustees. She says Dorfman has always taken deep dives.
“One of the last things we did at [my] audition was to walk or dance across the dance floor expressing who we are and what we want others to know about us,” says Chiang Paulin, who danced with the company for about five years in the mid-aughts and joined the board in 2016. “It was a vulnerable experience. Carolyn truly cares about us as human beings and not just her dancers. We are not only tools for her craft.”
Dorfman has always preferred to excavate, uncover a tender part of herself or her family history and extend a hand to the audience in a stunning array of thoughtful works that speak and minister to people’s lives. Yes: The personal is universal.
“We are all people who share hope, pain, laughter and love,” Baskin says. “That is what her work is about, and that is the environment she creates in the studio: a shared experience.”
Two works that Chiang Paulin points to are 2002’s “Echad,” which means, among other things, “one” in Hebrew, and 2007’s “Cat’s Cradle.” “Echad” was created in the wake of the company’s visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland as well as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Dorfman has said that, with these two events in mind, she used “Echad” to explore how communities can be driven to destroy thousands of lives, all in service of an idea, or an ideal.
“‘Echad ’ really embodies the spirit of Carolyn Dorman Dance and the community,” Chiang Paulin says. “There is a big, heavy, metal wheel as a centerpiece. We had to lift, roll, entangle our bodies into this prop as if it’s part of our limbs. The only way to make this wheel move the way we would like is to work together as a team. If one part isn’t doing its job, the entire piece crumbles.” Eight dancers echo the cyclical nature of the wheel, circling, integrating their bodies into the structure as embodied spokes, raising the wheel above their heads, traveling on it, even making it an altar of sacrifice, becoming confined by it. Ultimately, the dancers control the wheel, locating the balance between the collective and the individual. Watch a performance of “Echad” below.
“Cat’s Cradle,” a piece thick with memory and intergenerational connection, centers on a female trio of dancers, each with a ball of yarn, rolling and spinning to Ilse Weber’s aching music. The yarn acts as a metaphor for stories of the Jewish ghetto, stories that, when shared, can knit together generations.
“While it’s about a painful experience, it also exemplifies the resilience of humankind and how the arts can be an escape from reality in the cruelest times,” Chiang Paulin says. Watch an excerpt from “Cat’s Cradle” below.
Art and life, life and art, forever intertwined, in Dorfman’s singular vision: “All our programming … [is] focused on dance and life and the connections,” Dorfman says. “We all dance through life. We learn about each other through our daily movement. Creating these connections is the essence of our work on and off the stage.”
Tickets are $25 for general audience and $20 for Morris Museum members.
Performance-only tickets, which include up to two drinks at the complimentary wine-bar during the gallery portion of the evening, are on sale through the Morris Museum.