After a dance company has been around for 30 years or so, its galas become more interesting. A diligent choreographer such as Carolyn Dorfman — whose troupe, Carolyn Dorfman Dance, was the featured attraction of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s “Jersey Moves!” series, on April 28 — can produce a substantial body of work in that time.
Then, flush with options, Dorfman can reach into her stockroom to retrieve a pair of old favorites like “Sextet” and “Dance/Stories,” both created in the 1990s, to suit her present needs. Having proven herself many times over, Dorfman also has the luxury of stepping back to allow an enterprising company member, like Ae-Soon Kim, to contribute a dance of her own. Kim’s “Unfolding” received its premiere during the company’s gala at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, bookended by Dorfman’s works.
The theme of the evening was narrative — always a ticklish subject in dance. Beginning with the plotless “Sextet,” the program gradually acquired more referential baggage, adding props in “Unfolding,” a piece subtly styled to recall Kim’s Asian heritage; and surrendering to narrative entirely in “Dance/Stories.” Guest storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston dominated this final work, gamely spinning yarns, singing and playing an African thumb piano while the dancing aspired, at times, to out-and-out representation.
Purists will be happiest with “Sextet,” an eager and athletic dance that requires no meaning to justify its varied and beautiful inventions. Here the dancers’ moves are forceful. And at first they only pause to allow a sculptural pose, or a momentary symmetry, to register on the eye. Even curves are sharp; and when slipping sideways the nimble performers quickly turn forward again, somehow contriving to make this move seem direct, not evasive.
The dancing softens in a middle section, where Dorfman allows us to share feelings of release (phew!), but urgency returns in the finale. The concluding pose — the three women pulling away from their male partners, each with one leg spikily extended — summarizes the tension that pervades this dance. “Sextet” seems to strain against the confines of its own design.
“Unfolding,” in contrast, is a dance that highlights sinuosity and rhythm. As it opens, the dancers stand in a line, front to back. Their knees bend and ever-so-gently sway from side-to-side, swishing like a cat’s tail. Soon the dance grows explosive, with dancers leaping, seemingly propelling themselves with backward kicks, the leaps popping in an echo of Greg Wall and Shai Barchar’s percussive score. Yet the movement never loses its whiplash quality.
In a central section, projected clouds darken the backdrop and dancer Brandon Jones takes center stage in a duet with instrumentalist Youlmae Kim, who plays a traditional, Korean Janggo drum. He carries a fan, slowly folding it or snapping it open; the coyness of a moment where he hides his face seems reflected later in wide, curling turns.
The dance’s energy builds from small, rhythmic hops to large, breathy moves. To crown her piece, Kim introduces silk streamers that she arranges in a fan shape on the floor or uses in various ways to frame solos by each of the performers. In addition to Jones, the cast includes Caroline Dietz, Quinton Gunthier, Louie Marin and Elise Pacicco.
Occasionally a movement in “Unfolding” hints at a story, as when the dancers, arranged in another line, fall out — a woman appearing to swoon, and someone else getting throttled. Yet “Unfolding” never explains itself.
“Dance/Stories” is something quite different. After sections where the dancers play musical sticks and rattles, Dorfman gets down to business in a part called “When They Came” that weaves together memories of war, insurgency and slavery. Here some images are frankly illustrative. Two women huddle together as we hear of fugitives taking refuge beneath the floorboards; a dancer crumples as a woman confesses to losing her mind; hands joined at the wrist represent the golden voices of a children’s choir.
“Dance/Stories” ends on a comic note, however, as the performers don whimsical costumes to tell the story of an obstinate yam that resists the attempt to pull it. This barnyard tale is delightful, and Alston tells it with relish, even treating us to the donkey’s “hee-haw.” Yet as the yam finally succumbs to the combined efforts of Ma, Pa and a string of unlikely volunteers including that donkey, a rat, a mouse, a pig, a horse and a cow all hauling as one, we may suspect that Dorfman has something more than humor in mind. Yes, there is a moral.
In his bestselling book “Sapiens,” Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari makes the interesting point that the ability to tell stories distinguishes our species from all others, and that this imaginative faculty enables us to cooperate on a grand scale. According to Harari, telling stories and working together are the essence of what it means to be human.
In “Dance/Stories,” Carolyn Dorfman, a most sapient and human choreographer, seems to illustrate this thesis, dancing out a homey tale that reminds us of the value of cooperation.