When Carolyn Dorfman was a child and wanted to quit dance lessons, her father told her, “Mamaleh, don’t quit. I love watching you dance.” Her father, Henry Dorfman, who passed away in 2001, loved music, theater, and yes, watching his youngest daughter dance.
“He supported me,” said Dorfman, 62, in a phone interview from Miami, where her dance company was performing. Not only is Dorfman a devoted daughter — in Florida she was caring for her 94-year-old mother, Mala, who was awaiting surgery — she is also an unpretentious artist of international renown. She is the founding artistic director and choreographer of Carolyn Dorfman Dance, a contemporary modern dance company based in Union. Her eponymous company will celebrate its 35th anniversary on April 14 at a gala performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark.
Dorfman’s parents remain a tremendous influence on her, first through the love and support most parents gift their children, but also through their positive outlook on life, despite a tortured history, which informed their daughter’s entire persona.
“Nothing has shaped me more in all the facets of who I am as an artist and human being than being the child of survivors,” she said.
Both her parents were born in Poland. Her mother, from Lodz, survived with two sisters; the rest of her family was murdered in Auschwitz. Dorfman’s father and grandfather were the only members of their family to escape the extermination camp of Treblinka. Mala and Henry met in postwar Poland, married, and moved to Topeka, Kan., in the 1940s, and then to Detroit, where Carolyn was raised.
Dance is just one of the many ways she honors her heritage. She is also an engaged community member and educator who says that “building bridges through art” is one of her most important goals. A sampling of her numerous communal activities includes being on the advisory board of the Holocaust Council at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown; heading the dance division of NJPAC’s Arts Education program; and serving as a N.J. board member of the All Stars Project, an organization that promotes youth development through performance in under-served communities. Dorfman and her husband, Greg Gallick, an orthopedic surgeon, are members of Temple Sinai in Summit.
The most Jewish aspect of her, she said, is her “focus on humanism” every single day. While she has choreographed many numbers on Jewish themes, the majority of her work “embraces all aspects of life,” which for Dorfman means “life events and people that have made me who I am.”
“I never intended to make work about my Jewish legacy; it just percolated over time,” she said.
Revealing her life on the stage began in 1983 when she choreographed “Cries of the Children,” a 20-minute piece based on her dreams — and nightmares — about her parents’ wartime lives and the family members she would never know. The music is composed by cellist David Darling; during the performance photos taken by Roman Vishniac of people in prewar Poland are projected onto a screen backdrop, enhancing the piece’s somber mood.
When Dorfman’s mother asked her daughter why she decided to create something about such a depressing subject, her response was, “There isn’t a day in my life that goes by that I don’t think about your experiences in the war.”
“Cries of the Children” eventually became part of a collection of 10 works that became known in its entirety as “The Legacy Project,” which, according to Carolyn Dorfman Dance, honors “faith, survival, and renewal” as the cornerstones of Dorfman’s Eastern European roots and Jewish heritage.
The dialogue continues off stage with “The Legacy Project” master dance classes, lectures, workshops, and panel discussions on themes such as immigration, genocide, and equality. The programming is offered, Dorfman said, because she values interconnectedness and what impacts the human condition. In other words, she’s “most interested in what connects us, as opposed to what divides us.”
Because her parents were survivors who “chose life,” she said, “The Legacy Project” is not entirely dark and dreary; it’s also a celebration.
“Their survival had to mean something,” Dorfman said.
Henry and Mala embraced life in America. They were social and entertained often, and Dorfman recalled always having people in their home. The Dorfmans were philanthropists and leaders in support of Israel Bonds, Magen David Adom, and their synagogues, and they were part of a B’nai B’rith chapter comprised primarily of Holocaust survivors. For decades the couple traveled to Israel every year, and they were instrumental in building Holocaust memorials in Michigan and Florida.
The strength and spirit of the survivor, Dorfman said, is one legacy that “lives strong” for her. In fact, her father’s resiliency was the inspiration for “My Father’s Solo,” a number she choreographed in 2000, which is set to a jazz rendition of “Eliyahu HaNavi” (of Passover seder fame), and is the opening of “Mayne Mentshn,” part of “The Legacy Project.”
Her drive and optimism are also part of a survivor’s legacy. “My parents always gave me hope,” she said.
Decency and humanity not only come through on stage, they also play out in the work culture of her company. Dorfman’s dancers, she said, “are trained to have 360-degree awareness and to have trust and care for each other; that’s part of the job in my company.” She also said she doesn’t hire “prima donnas.”
In a typical dance class, students line up in rows and face a mirrored wall. In classes for her company members, mirrors are not used, “because that is seeing and moving from the outside in, and I want dancers sensing and moving from the inside out,” she wrote in an email. They also at times face each other to build connections, an “essential ingredient,” she said, in the performance of her work.
Even after 35 years in the biz, Dorfman remains committed to connecting people and making her piece of the world a better place.
“Dance has an extraordinary power to speak about the human story and to help us understand and respect one another,” she wrote. “I want to see us develop as human beings. Arts are fundamental to that growth.”