For 40 years, Carolyn Dorfman has been making wonderful dances — gutsy, playful and affecting. Her company, Carolyn Dorfman Dance, marked its anniversary April 13 and 15 with “Dance on Exhibit,” a stylish program at the Morris Museum in Morris Township featuring both a living “installation” and excerpts from the troupe’s substantial repertory. This smorgasbord ranged from Dorfman’s early Lifeline (1987) to The Attitude of Doing, a dance that received its premiere last year.
There is much to celebrate.
Dorfman’s style is eclectic. She can sketch characters and portray dramatic situations, yet also designs abstract compositions tinged with emotion. This repertory has heart, for sure, but it also has backbone. Some of these pieces depend upon props or digital projections, while others simply exploit leverage and the dancers’ considerable energy. Grounded in the traditions of American modern dance, Dorfman allows herself to go wherever an idea leads her.
Before the performances at the museum’s Bickford Theatre, Dorfman underscored her desire to connect with audiences by presenting her dancers up close in a series of “installations” in a museum gallery and in the theater lobby. The dancers were displayed on pedestals, or in discrete areas on strips of carpeting. Passing by, the viewer could admire their sculptural plastique as they slowly changed position, but also the urgency of an abrupt, dramatic gesture, and the tender yet electric interaction of duet partners whose positions are opposed or conjoined. It is amazing how much dancing can fit into a tight space.
Once inside the theater, we were treated to a program in four acts, each with a different theme.
The first excerpt, from Lifeline, depicted a rescue and a journey that could not be completed alone. Dominique Dobransky reached out, straining against a cable that tethered her to the wings. Only when Khalid Dunton entered and took her on his back did the cable slacken and release her.
In the excerpt from Echad, Dorfman built ingenious group patterns around the giant, metal Wheel that dominated the space, seemingly bringing the machine to life. The choreography was itself a machine, and the dancers its constituent parts.
Yet while the Wheel in Echad functioned as a rallying point and a refuge, it could also be a prison. Group effort achieved what a lone individual could not in “The Yam Story,” a playful excerpt from Dance/Stories illustrating a barnyard fable narrated by Kendra Vernon. Yet we had to pity the individual (Kaila Moses) deprived of personal freedom, who found herself trapped inside a rolling cage.
Act 2 depicted various romantic situations under the heading “Intimacy of Relationship.” These scenarios included the lonely and desperate (an excerpt from Living Room Music); the melodramatic (Love Suite Love); and the whimsical (Cercle d’Amour). The finest pieces, however, were the most purely physical. By turns gentle and dramatic, Keystone began with lovers Kaila Moses and Brandon Jones propped against each other in perfect equilibrium. As the piece evolved, they remained engaged, tumbling and folding together as they condensed a lifetime of mutual support. A spectacular excerpt from Sextet revealed still more formal possibilities, but here the movement had a sensuous feel to it and the dancers looked relaxed, performing with a lilt and a smile.
With “The Legacy Project,” in Act 3, Dorfman plunged us into the tumultuous history of 20th century European Jewry as the choreographer explored her family heritage. These pieces, including Mayne Mentshn and Cat’s Cradle, are among her greatest achievements, featuring deeply felt dramatic episodes that mingle joy and horror.
After a scene of nervous excitement, we saw the family gathered around the table, leafing through the pages of the Haggadah, praying, exclaiming and interrogating one another with gestures. A wedding scene used masks to suggest the complicated feelings of the Bride and Groom, while the boisterous ensemble arranged itself in prancing lines, or linked arms in a twisty, high-stepping circle. A cry of alarm — the warning bleat of a Shofar — announced the Holocaust, which passed like a cyclone blowing everything away. Frozen in a topsy-turvy tableau, the dancers became homeless refugees. Somehow Dorfman encapsulated all this history into a solo (danced by Katlyn Baskin) dedicated to her father, a man torn between extremes, bowed at times but never defeated and animated, always, by a vital rhythm.
In the excerpts from Cat’s Cradle, an inspired collaboration between Dorfman and singer Bente Kahan, we found ourselves trapped in a nightmare with Dominique Dobransky, who appeared caught between strands of yarn like barbed wire. Mugging her way through a blowsy solo, Baskin introduced a ghastly vaudeville (“Ich Bitte, Nicht Lachen/I Beg You Not to Laugh”), supposedly performed by the inmates in a concentration camp.
Thank goodness, Dorfman did not leave us here. Act 4 brought us up-to-date with excerpts from dances influenced by hip-hop (Waves) and virtual reality (Interior Designs).
The best part of this 40th anniversary celebration, however, was that Dorfman’s inspiration remains fresh. Clearly there are more acts to come.
For more on Carolyn Dorfman Dance, visit carolyndorfman.dance.
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