Carolyn Dorfman Dance’s ‘Legacy Project’ depicts horrors but also offers hope

dorfman dance review

Dancers in Carolyn Dorfman Dance’s “The Legacy Project.”

One definition of a classic is a piece that viewers can return to, time after time, without exhausting its resources or lessening its impact. Carolyn Dorfman’s “Legacy Project” is such a work. A suite of dances drawing on this choreographer’s experience as a child of Holocaust survivors, “The Legacy Project” proved emotionally wrenching, yet again, when her company, Carolyn Dorfman Dance, revived it, Jan. 28 at The Wilkins Theatre at Kean University in Union.

Dorfman has edited these dances, created from 2000 to 2007, to form a triptych that portrays the innocent joys of family life, the torments of the Second World War and, finally, the struggle of survivors to adapt to life in a new country. The narrative is gripping because, though stylized in the way of modern dance, it has its roots in a profound reality. Between episodes, Dorfman addresses us from a lectern, rising above the drama to place her work in context. Her calm, lucid commentary offers comfort, for it suggests that reason may prevail.

A tribute to the choreographer’s father — an excerpt from “Mayne Mentshn (My People)” — opens the piece. Katlyn Baskin, clad in a raincoat and fedora, portrays the weary wage-earner as he shuffles on his daily round, the merest shadow of a lilt in his step, his hands lifted in an ongoing debate with the Most High. Yet this humble figure remains unbeaten, and will teach the lesson of his resilience to a new generation.

Dancers in Carolyn Dorfman Dance’s “The Legacy Project.”

A thumping beat and swinging Klezmer melody accompanies the second excerpt. “Jazz Rabbi” Greg Wall’s commissioned score lends a piquant atmosphere to the scene, as a family gathers around the Passover table to turn the pages of the Haggadah and raise hands clasped in prayer. Peppered with intense, conversational gestures, this exhausting ritual quickly morphs into another celebration, as the dining table converts into a wedding canopy, or chuppah. Now the family rejoices, the men linking arms in a tight circle, the women tossing their heads and prancing.

In the midst of their ebullience, however, a terrible warning sounds, and The Holocaust arrives like a mighty wind tearing apart the newlyweds and scattering the crowd. This segment closes with a tableau in which individuals are turned upside down and carried away on chairs — an image of migration and disorderly flight.

The songs of Ilse Weber, an artist murdered with her small son at the Auschwitz concentration camp, undergird the second portion of “The Legacy Project,” featuring scenes from a dance called “Cat’s Cradle.” Dorfman finds harrowing images to pair with the lullabies, ballads and cabaret tunes that Weber composed while she was an inmate in the Theresienstadt ghetto, before her deportation. Here Dorfman also draws on the stories told by her mother and aunts, who appear as characters in the dance, three sisters winding balls of yarn. Kayleigh Bowen, Dominique Dobransky and Maiko Harada play the sisters, their movements full-bodied and expressive as they embrace or tumble on the floor, assuming tense and wary postures.

carolyn dorfman legacy project review

Dancers in Carolyn Dorfman Dance’s “The Legacy Project.”

Among the characters who emerge in vignettes are women laborers who circulate frantically and bear a dead body in a washtub; and hungry children who dream of food, gazing forlornly through the bars of their prison. Andréa Ward is the central figure in an episode titled “Suitcase.” Other dancers slip beneath the strands of yarn that extend like barriers across the stage, but Ward appears caught, hanging brokenly on tip-toe with one arm hooked in mid-air. Later, the trap closes on her; and Ward is bound in yarn and bundled off to her fate. Harada and Brandon Jones have breakout solos that appear to defy the grim circumstances, but while one can almost believe in Harada’s sprightly attempt at seduction, Jones’ gaiety is clearly forced. During his robotic solo, he wears a rictus smile. Finally, these artists, like the others, are piled with the dead.

Still, amid the confusion of a war fought over a vast territory, chance allowed some people to escape. Dorfman’s father and mother were among the lucky ones, who were able to begin life anew in America. So this evening concludes with “The American Dream,” a wistful chronicle of a family’s struggle to assimilate.

Dobransky returns as an aproned homemaker who must master a new vocabulary (“matzo balls” become “dumplings”; “oy” becomes “oh”). A worried mother, Dobransky also tries to rein in Ward, the daughter who is eager to join the sassy and confident crowd in her new land. Things are hardest for Jacob Kurihara, who must wedge himself into a narrow and unwelcoming society; whose hand of friendship is rebuffed; and who finds himself unceremoniously dumped. Kurihara rises and dusts himself off. Then he learns the dance of Dorfman’s father, when Baskin returns as an inspirational figure leading the ensemble into a hopeful future.

Although “The Legacy Project” recalls what befell European Jews in a particular time and place, it is important to situate The Holocaust within the larger history of eugenics and race prejudice, which continues today. Dorfman, in her onstage remarks, explained her intention to describe the universal struggle for freedom.

Freedom is something we Americans supposedly know about. But have we truly learned the lessons of The Holocaust? Do we recognize genocidal evil when we see it? Perhaps some viewers who take “The Legacy Project” to heart may wish to explore further, reading about mass formation and the psychological effects of terror. (Propaganda was The Nazis’ most powerful weapon.) “The Legacy Project” will have done its job well if it not only hallows remembrance, but helps us penetrate fascism’s new disguises.

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