Dance is a lot of different things. From the repetitive physical meditation of Sufi dervishes to the in-your-face secularity of hip-hop, it’s somehow all one—sort of.
In the world of dance as art, within a more limited framework, there are almost as many variations. Some audiences are completely absorbed by women pretending to be swans—or ghosts, or fairies. And at other times, the exact same audiences are charmed and intrigued by movement that is completely abstract, celebrating the athletic grace of the human form.
This past weekend, we had the opportunity to see two extremes of dance as art. We got to watch a large and elaborate production of the 19th century Russian ballet based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, performed by the New Jersey Ballet Company.
A day later and an hour away, we moved to the other end of the dance spectrum, to see the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company present a repertory program at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum. The contrast was startling.
But, as we have said, it all fits under the heading of dance as art, and so let’s look at what the two had in common. Both companies feature dancers of tremendous abilities. Their training may be somewhat different, but you can be sure there are things they share.
One would be an exquisite sense of geometry. A straight leg or an arm set in a perfect arc are dazzling whether the dancers are in tutus or unadorned leotards. A gravity-defying leap that seems to pause in mid-air is gorgeous to watch. Balance and flexibility are qualities shared by the dancers of both genres.
The Dorfman company is a New Jersey institution not quite as old as NJ Ballet, but still with an impressive history. We first saw them some time in the 1990s, in a college appearance. Pleased to see modern dance this side of the Hudson, we followed the company, impressed by the uniquely meaningful and cerebral choreography they performed, usually the work of the company director.
Over the years, Carolyn Dorfman has built a substantial repertory, often set to original scores commissioned by the company. The child of Holocaust survivors, Dorfman has often drawn on her family’s personal history for her choreography.
Opening Sunday’s program was one of Dorfman’s signature pieces, Echad (the Hebrew word for “one.”) Created as a response to the events of 9/11/01, it is built around a prop, an 8-foot wheel (above). Is the “one” of the title an assertion of a deity, or the oneness of humanity? The wheel is a thing on which the dancers move, but also something which puts them at risk. The score is by Greg Wall, starkly modern. Shapes and shadows fill the stage with that special geometry of dance.
The second piece on Sunday’s program was equally modern and equally abstract, but nonetheless very different. Narcoleptic Lovers, choreographed by Doug Elkins to a score ranging from jazz to Mozart, is light-spirited and whimsical.
The program ended with a new Dorfman piece. Traces, to a score by Svjetlana Bukvich. Traces is a lengthy exploration of human interaction, war, family, conflict and unity. The ten dancers move through a landscape of boxes (above) that resemble shower stalls, sometimes pierced with video images and lighting that change the landscape. The work will be performed during an upcoming tour the company is making to Croatia and Bosnia.
The Carolyn Dorfman company appears frequently in New York City venues and is one of the most visible of the Garden State’s dance companies. Yes, modern dance is alive and well in New Jersey.
Photos by Christopher Duggan