Carolyn Dorfman Dance
Ailey Citygroup Theater
New York, New York

June 12, 2024
Celebrate: 40 Year Retrospective, Now, The Attitude of Doing…

Jerry Hochman

When one attends a long-established dance company’s retrospective celebration of its accomplishments, particularly when feeling a bit guilty for not having seen a performance by that company previously, one may feel some discomfort at being obligated to sit through an extensive set of excerpts from dances the viewer had never seen. On top of my general predisposition against seeing bits and pieces of dances unless they were expected or intended to be standalone, that was my initial reaction to having to endure an evening largely consisting of excerpts presented by Carolyn Dorfman Dance at Ailey Citigroup Theater last week.

That this turned out not to be the case with this program, which consisted almost entirely of retrospective excerpts, that Carolyn Dorfman Dance (“CDD”) presented to celebrate the New Jersey-based company’s 40th Anniversary (well, 41st or 42nd, but after 40 you tend to count by decades, if at all) and the dances created by its Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer Carolyn Dorfman, is a testament to the varied nature, and the quality, of Dorfman’s body of work to date.

With the possible exception of the two final pieces on the program (one of which was choreographed by someone other than Dorfman – the only such piece on the program), Dorfman’s dances reflect this variety and quality without the least bit of pretension or excess, or unnecessary complexity. When the pieces (judged by their excerpts) work, as most do, they touch the heart – sometimes making it laugh; sometimes making it cry.

The program featured approximately 15 excerpted dances, plus the two that apparently were seen in their entirety. It was a long, but generally rewarding evening. The presentation was intended to be seamless – more often than not, one excerpt bled into the next. This, a form of choreography itself, resulted in a very smooth viewing experience. Determining when one excerpt concluded and another began was rarely easy – and I suspect transitions were added occasionally to facilitate the seamless impression – but that’s the only general criticism of what could have been a tiring exhibition to sit through, but instead, with rare exceptions, was exhilarating.

Particularly prominent is Dorfman’s unapologetic recognition, and appreciation, of her heritage – not just those dances that explicitly relate to it, but even those that only express a quality of human nature that can be seen to share a similar life outlook. These days, that’s refreshing.

The presentation was divided into four sections, listed as Acts: Community (Act I), Intimacy of Relationship (Act II), Legacy Project (Act III), and Celebrating it All! (Act IV). They’re self-explanatory divisions of Dorfman’s oeuvre (with that one exception) that also happen to correspond roughly to the original dances’ premiere dates.

The evening opened with excerpts relating to “Community.”  Created in 1987, some three years after she founded CDD, Lifeline is the earliest of the Dorfman pieces on the program. Based on the excerpt, it’s an unusual, and very fine, example of an early choreographic effort. Dominique Dobransky (who appeared to carry the laboring oar through the evening’s many dances) first appears from the wings audience-left, pulling a thick rope or cable like Sisyphus, except horizontally instead of up a mountain. As she crosses the stage, struggling against the self (or societal) imposed captivity, a man (Jacob Kurihara) follows her, unwinding the rope. Eventually, he scoops her onto his back, giving her a measure of freedom.

Carolyn Dorfman Dance.in “Echad”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

During the excerpt, a circular construction is present upstage center, but it was not used – it just loomed over the action in front of it. But as the Lifeline excerpt ends, additional dancers emerge from the wings toward the structure. This was the transition to her 2002 piece, Echad (One) – New Moon. It’s not clear whether this was an excerpt or the entire piece, but it too is an interesting commentary on community, isolation, and mutual reliance. The construction, which Dorfman designed, is a large round object with spaces on its circumference to spread onto or into, and gaps between various connecting sections just wide enough to accommodate a head or small body.

The eight dancers promptly surround the structure, leap on and around it, lay atop it, and stick their heads (or as much body as will fit) into the gaps – all while the structure is turned along its round edge and the cacophonous (and indecipherable) original score (by Greg Wall) builds in emphasis.

Excerpt or not, Echad seems not so much a metaphor for community as a commentary on how that community deals, collectively and individually, with stimuli – that is, with the ins and outs and unexpected twists and turns of life. That may be more than Dorfman intended, but it resonates particularly in the divisive world in which we currently live.

Act I ends with another indicia of community, “The Yam Story,” one of the stories Dorfman visualizes in her 1996 Dance/Stories. Because the story itself, although an excerpt from the whole, is the complete story, it’s one of the cleanest and most fun to watch of all the program’s dances.

“The Yam Story” has much in common with stories presented by children’s theater groups (morality tales; fables), but this one is original (written by Charlotte Blake Alston), and in its simplicity clearly exemplifies, and celebrates, the benefits of “community.” Various farm characters (as I recall, all in pairs) attempt to extricate a yam from the ground. It sounds stupid, but it’s very entertaining. The cast, which seemed to be having as much fun with it as the audience had watching it, consisted of: Kayleigh Bowen, Dobransky, Hannah Gross, Brandon Jones, Jared Stern, Charles Scheland, Maiko Harada, and Andréa Ward. And the storyteller (narrator) was Blake Alston herself.

The second Act, “Intimacy of Relationship,” consisted of five excerpts, one of which was a mashup of excerpts from two different dances: Keystone (2012); Living Room Music (1994); Waves (2015); Interior Design (2013); and Broken Dreams (1990)/ Love Suite Love (1992) . Of them, the finest were the ones where the excerpt was particularly focused: Keystone; in which the two dancers, Dobransky and Brandon Jones, to music credited to Rufus Wainwright (his version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah, which should have been referenced in the program), moved through life like mutually reliant conjoined twins; Waves, performed by Maiko Harada and Jones, which I found quite clever; and Broken Dreams/Love Suite Love, performed as a delightful solo(s) by Dobransky.

Carolyn Dorfman Dance in “The Attitude of Doing…”
Photo by Whitney Browne

By far the finest segments of the evening were those in Act III. As I noted above, Dorfman has no hesitation about visualizing scenes or stories that reflect her heritage (her parents were Holocaust survivors), and the excerpts here from Mayne Mentshn (My People), Act 1: The Klezmer Sketch (2000), and Cat’s Cradle (2007) are among the finest that I’ve seen on these subjects.

The former, three excerpts from the first Act of a two-Act dance, depicts aspects of Jewish life. They’re little gems – particularly “My Father’s Solo,” danced by Tyler Choquette, and “My Father’s Table,” featuring Dobransky, Gross, Harada, Jones, Kurihara, Charles Scheland, Jen Silver, and Andréa Ward, in which the extended family acts like a family at any communal dinner might look – but with a Jewish edge. Don’t ask me to explain.

But Dorfman is at her best in the excerpts from Cat’s Cradle. The segue from one excerpt to another is particularly meaningful here. Following a celebration that concludes the Mayne Mentshn excerpts, a portentous blast from what had to have been a shofar stops the levity in its tracks, shifting the excerpted choreographic focus to the Holocaust.

I’ve seen other dances that concern this subject, the finest being one (the title of which I can’t recall) choreographed by Anna Sokolow, which to the best of my recollection I saw at a theater in Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Cat’s Cradle, as evidenced by these excerpts, is different, but on the same level of quality.

Regardless of one’s background, one cannot help but be moved by the stories Dorfman has gathered that relate to Theresienstadt, a ghetto in Czechoslovakia, which the program describes as originally meant to house 5,000 people, but that became a holding ground for well over 100,000 Jews and others who were ultimately destined for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Inspired by the musical theater production, ‘Voices From Theresienstadt’ by Ellen Foyn Bruun and Bente Kahan, and with a text written & music by Ilse Weber or others while prisoners in Theresienstadt, the excerpts are overwhelming in their simple matter-of-fact horror. From the opening visualization of a cat’s cradle that gradually seems to constrict (masterfully performed by Kayleigh Bowen, Dobransky, and Harada) to Harada’s star turn in “Ich Bitte, Nicht Lachen (I Beg You, Don’t Laugh)” – which for this dance should have been amended to “I Beg You, Don’t Cry.” Considering how many times that the Holocaust has been extensively mined for dance and theatrical productions, Dorfman’s accomplishment here in visualizing something in a new way is astonishing.

Between the two sets of Act III excerpts, the only stereotypical character trait not represented was guilt. I took care of that myself for failing even to be aware of these pieces previously.

And then there are the new (relatively) dances, performed in their entirety, which constitute the “Celebrating it All!” of Act IV.

Carolyn Dorfman Dance in Juel D. Lane’s “Now”
Photo by Whitney Browne

The first of the two dances, titled Now, was choreographed by Juel D. Lane, a former CDD dancer. It premiered in 2022 (or 2021, depending on your source), and had its NYC premiere at last summer’s Battery Dance Festival. The program contains no description of it, but the CDD web site describes it as follows: “Perfectly made for this time of uncertainty, NOW showcases Juel’s signature fast-paced, heart-stopping choreography is a defiant journey of thriving despite the fearful and difficult time in which we now find ourselves. His work moves the body and the soul.”  I saw nothing like that.

There’s nothing bad about Now, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about it either. It’s filled with the kind of non-stop action that audiences seem addicted to, but it doesn’t say anything different from any number of non-stop action pieces that dot the contemporary dancescape. The piece isn’t one-note; Lane does include some slower movement to match the commissioned score by Leo RA Soul, but he uses the opportunity primarily, to my recollection, to add “slinky” choreography to the otherwise standard full-throttle mix.

Carolyn Dorfman
Photo by Lois Greenfield

The evening concluded with another 2022 dance, Dorfman’s The Attitude of Doing… , which was originally commissioned by NJPAC as part of its 25th Anniversary season. Unlike Now, The Attitude of Doing… has texture, and a commissioned score (supplemented with recorded music) by violinist Regina Carter (who appeared at the piece’s world premiere). A recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Award, Carter’s score is eclectic, and, together with Dorfman’s eclectic company, caters to Dorfman’s specialty – a sense of humanity. While my recollection of specifics of The Attitude of Doing… is limited (early on, I decided to watch it rather than take notes), what lingers is the sense of joy that Dorfman and the CDD dancers communicate, culminating in Dorfman’s appearance at center stage, surrounded by her dancers (based on a photograph I located, at the dance’s premiere that honor was given to Carter). The dancers (the entire company: Bowen, Choquette, Dobransky, Gross, Harada, Jones, Kurihara, Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler, Scheland, Silver, Stern, and Ward) all did superb work.

To someone not previously acquainted with Dorfman’s choreography or company, the evening was a revelatory crash course, and I look forward to seeing additional CDD programs when possible. Dorfman’s choreography has a rare ability to comment on the human condition without letting the “humanity” of it fade into the background. I hope that focus, rather than yielding to what might be seen as contemporary pressures, continues.