Until five years ago, Max Kleinman was not an admirer of modern dance.
“I really was not a big fan unless I liked the music, and if I liked the music my wife Gail would drag me there,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 27 phone interview.
Then, in 2009, Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, took Kleinman to a performance of The Legacy Project by the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, and it changed his life.
The Legacy Project is a suite of dances — including study guides and narrative performances — that draw on Dorfman’s Eastern European Jewish roots. The production centers on biographical themes that are shared by the choreographer and Kleinman, CEO emeritus of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Both had Polish-born parents who survived the Holocaust.
To Kleinman, the production “resonated with me viscerally and emotionally. Carolyn’s choreography is just outstanding. So I have grown to understand modern dance and really appreciate it,” he said.
And sometimes The Legacy Project works in the opposite direction — helping dance audiences make a visceral connection to the Jewish story.
Last month, the multi-ethnic troupe performed Klezmer Sketch — an excerpt from The Legacy Project — at the Winter Arts Festival in Sarajevo, where the ensemble visited Feb. 17-23. Between 1992 and 1996, the city was the victim of genocidal ethnic cleansing directed principally at Bosnian Muslims.
Klezmer Sketch begins with a solo dance performed to a jazz version of the Passover melody for “Eliyahu Hanavi” by a character who represents Dorfman’s father.
“‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ is about survival,” she said. “It is about his ability to rebound, speaks not only about him but about the Jewish people and the ability to rise again and again.”
“I said, ‘OK, I don’t want to just remember the pain. I want to remember the life in the Jewish community before the Shoa,” she added.
The themes of loss and recovery in the wake of genocide resonated with the audiences in Sarajevo — just as it does with her troupe members, she said.
“Each of my dancers relates to dance numbers about Jewish oppression and survival in a different way,” Dorfman said. “I have a dancer from Japan who is Korean, and she endured great prejudice growing up Korean in Japan. There are dancers in my company who are black, and they know what oppression is about. They are incredibly sensitive human beings.”
Offstage, the troupe conducted workshops with local dancers and with 70 members of the Sarajevo Jewish community who were recipients of help from its Jewish community center. “It was amazing,” said Dorfman, who lives in Montclair. “It is one of the few Jewish communities in Europe that does not need protection from security guards and for the most part gets along well with its Muslim neighbors. They live in very close proximity with the mosque, the Catholic church, and other Christian churches.
“We brought beauty and hope to an area that has suffered a great deal,” she said. “They understood Klezmer Sketch, and they understood life being interrupted.” The performance, she said, reinforces the concept that “the more specific you are, the more universal your story.”
Klezmer Sketch will be among the pieces performed on March 13, when the company holds its annual gala at 7:15 p.m. in the Chase Room of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
The honoree will be Kleinman, who will receive the company’s 2015 Encore Award.
“Max was so taken by The Legacy Project that he became a staunch supporter through the federation,” said Dorfman, whose company is based in Union. “He made connections to New Jersey Y Camps, so we now do an annual residency there. He is constantly finding ways to support our company. When I call Max he always asks, ‘What do you need?’ We feel it is time to thank him for all he has done.”
“I was very surprised to be honored by her,” said Kleinman. “I don’t think I merit it, but it’s not up to me. But even more important, I hope we will raise a lot of money to help support the great work that she does.”
Following the presentation will be the premiere of Dorfman’s newest piece, Waves, which she described as “a sound-movement exploration.”