The Carolyn Dorfman Dance company has emerged from the Great Lockdown of 2020-21 just in time to celebrate a major anniversary — 40 years of exceptional artistry. Roaring back to life, the Union-based troupe has scheduled a busy season that includes high-profile appearances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and the Morris Museum in Morris Township, as well as community outreach activities and local and national touring.
After two years of negotiating COVID restrictions, Dorfman says she gets emotional now just standing onstage. The choreographer and artistic director is more aware than ever of the fragile beauty of dance, and of the way her art helps people connect.
“The appreciation and the gratitude are an incredible byproduct,” she says, recalling her determined struggle to continue choreographing and teaching despite arbitrary social-distancing rules.
Dance is an art of physical contact and community — perhaps the most deeply human of all the arts — yet for months on end, Dorfman’s only connection with her dancers was mediated via Zoom. Doggedly, the troupe continued to work.
“They were at home bumping into radiators and knocking over lamps, making small movements because it was all they could do,” Dorfman says.
Even after the company returned to the studio, she says, the dancers refrained from touching one another. Each person remained isolated in a 12-foot square, sanitized regularly with hypochlorous mist. Wearing masks, they danced until their lungs felt ready to burst, rehearsing for seven hours at a stretch. Instead of taking smoking breaks, they would step outside periodically to gulp fresh air.
Miraculously, despite the fear and isolation, the troupe used this time to produce a work of effervescent joy. Dorfman choreographed PRIMA!, a high-octane piece set to the music of famed bandleader Louis Prima, which received its premiere on video but will be performed at The Victoria Theater at NJPAC on Nov. 16.
The event, dubbed “Jazz Legends and the Power of NOW,” will be part of NJPAC’s TD James Moody Jazz Festival. In addition to PRIMA!, the concert will feature the premiere of The Attitude of Doing, a collaboration between Dorfman and renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter, commissioned by NJPAC. Carter, the artistic director of NJPAC’s Geri Allen Jazz Summer Camp, will perform excerpts from her repertory, including “Mwantalitambula,” “Trampin’,” “I’ll Never Be Free” and “Ac-cen-tchu-ate.” While the dances accompanying these numbers vary in atmosphere, Dorfman says images of fragmentation and accumulation provide a connecting thread and that both she and Carter are concerned with building community.
“That is where Regina and I see the greatest hope,” Dorfman says. “The piece is about life’s journey (and) the positive power of change.”
The concert will also feature NOW, a dance by emerging choreographer Juel D. Lane, a former member of Dorfman’s company currently performing with Camille A. Brown. According to Dorfman, NOW exploits powerful juxtapositions and reflects the various ways in which people reacted to the COVID lockdown. The piece expresses “a sense of alienation, a striving for community, a kind of acquiescence, but then also wanting to fight back,” she says.
Looking forward to next Spring, Dorfman sees the culmination of this anniversary season in two performances at the Morris Museum, April 13 and 15. Longtime company members Jacqueline Dumas Albert and Katlyn Baskin are helping to revive selections from four decades of repertoire, giving audiences an overview of the company’s achievements.
In addition to performing in the museum’s Bickford Theatre, the dancers will participate in “Dance on Exhibit,” an installation in which living displays will demonstrate the use of gesture and props and explain Dorfman’s center-driven approach to movement.
When the troupe isn’t performing, it remains active teaching and conducting workshops; and Dorfman feels her educational activity is an essential form of community engagement.
“I never feel less than an artist if I’m teaching, if I’m talking about dance, if I’m mentoring someone,” she says. “To me they’re all related.”
During the COVID lockdown, she and her teaching artists transformed the company’s “Speaking Through Dance” curriculum into a video series, which is now proving popular with high schools. Dorfman hopes to reach more students than ever via the Internet.
Meanwhile, a residency in Chattanooga, Tenn., comes courtesy of former company member Louie Marin-Howard. Marin-Howard now works as director of outreach education for the Pop-Up Project, in Chattanooga, leveraging his experience with “Speaking Through Dance.”
Dorfman expresses satisfaction at the thought that all the dancers she has mentored over the years are spreading her humanistic approach to making art and building community. “When artists leave, they take with them those philosophies and ideas, and they manifest elsewhere in this beautiful way,” she says. “Dance is a great connector.”
For more information, visit facebook.com/CDorfmanDance.
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