“I didn’t intend to make work about my Jewish legacy. It just kind of percolated,” says Carolyn Dorfman, choreographer and artistic director of Carolyn Dorfman Dance. Now in its 35th season, Carolyn Dorfman Dance explores a wide range of subjects, including the changing nature of love, the power of the natural world, even the meaning and attraction of tattoos.
Performances are high energy, technically demanding and visually stunning. But it is the stories that are paramount for Dorfman as an artist: “The commonality of the human experience is what really drives me. That idea of connecting to each other on a visceral level.” And for Dorfman, communicating with others starts at the beginning, by understanding and exploring her own place in the world – as the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.
Dorfman’s parents survived the Holocaust. Their story has been a powerful example for her, as both person and artist. The ability of her mother and father to reclaim life after the horrors of the Holocaust inspired her from the beginning. As Dorfman puts it, “the survivors have this ability to fall, endure and rise again. And that’s an incredible legacy to leave.”
I spoke to Dorfman by phone at the hospital, where she was visiting with her mother, now 94. She was only 15 when the Nazis turned her world upside down. Yet not only did she survive, she thrived, even after witnessing unspeakable horrors.
What gave her this strength? Dorfman turned to her mother and asked her this question directly. “Because I didn’t want the Nazis to win!” she replied. “Dying here would have given them another victory.”
Dorfman grew up in a home full of Eastern European traditions, and in a community where she heard stories from an entire generation of survivors. Her work as a choreographer is rooted in her experience as a second generation American, yet it transcends her own individual situation.
“It’s really the story of us all,” she says. “You give an authentic story and people can step into it and find themselves. Art is an incredible window, because there’s room for interpretation.”
Dorfman’s dances focusing on the Jewish experience are loosely grouped in an ongoing series called “The Legacy Project,” including “Tikkun,” “Silent Echoes,” “Echad” and more. Each is an independent work, linked by the theme of the Jewish experience and its ongoing meaning in today’s world.
On February 25, Dorfman’s company of 11 dancers will perform “The Legacy Project: A Dance of Hope” at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre. This performance will feature excerpts from “Mayne Mentshn” (My People) including “The Klezmer Sketch,” “American Dream” and “Cat’s Cradle.” Viewers will go on a journey from the old world through WWII, then forward to a new country and a new life. Dorfman describes these dances as honoring where we come from and our uniqueness, while still recognizing that we become part of a larger whole in a new world. In sum, these dances are about the immigrant experience that connects so many of us here in America.
The performance at Monmouth University on Sunday, February 25 at 4 pm will be narrated by Dorfman herself. She often uses projections and the spoken word in connection with music and dance to engage audiences on multiple levels, giving them a richer experience.
A companion exhibit of work by Jacob Landau and a circle of friends influenced by his vision will also be on display. Landau was an artist based in Roosevelt, N.J. who died in 2001. As a very young choreographer, Dorfman and Landau became close friends after meeting at the Artist Teacher Institute. Both were humanists, putting the centrality of the human experience first and foremost.
“The Legacy Project: A Dance of Hope” and “Jacob Landau and His Circle” are both part of the Jewish Cultural Studies Program at Monmouth University. For more information, and to buy tickets, visit the Monmouth University Center for the Arts.