Turning memory into movement

Turning memory into movement

For Carolyn Dorfman, Shoa inspires dance that builds bridges

Choreographer and dance educator Carolyn Dorfman feels a growing urgency to speak out about the Holocaust. Photos by Tom Caravaglia
Choreographer and dance educator Carolyn Dorfman feels a growing urgency to speak out about the Holocaust. Photos by Tom Caravaglia

When Carolyn Dorfman talks to students, she sometimes asks them to think about a bad experience they value because it helped make them who they are.

“For me,” she told NJ Jewish News, “that experience is being the child of survivors.”

Though her parents’ stories of their wartime experiences in Poland gave her terrible nightmares as a child, she said, they shaped her for the better. The Union-based dancer, choreographer, and educator draws on those stories to build bridges and foster understanding between people.

The stories inspired the dances that her company, now in its 28th season, will perform at a Kristallnacht commemoration next week in Morristown — excerpts from Mayne Mentshn and Cat’s Cradle. While explicitly portraying Jewish ways and Jewish traditions, in both pieces she strives to capture feelings of poignant family connections that are universal — and thereby convey the tragedy hatred can cause.

The appearance by the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company is part of the College of Saint Elizabeth’s Evening of Remembrance through the Arts. It will take place on Monday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the campus’ Dolan Performance Hall. The event is the centerpiece of the 20th annual Week of Holocaust Remembrance, commemorating the anniversary of Kristallnacht (see sidebar).

Between performances, Dorfman will talk with the audience. She and her company weave education into their work at schools, colleges, and theaters, involving the audiences in the discussion about their themes and the whole process of communicating through movement.

With her relatives, Dorfman said, she used to listen quietly, but these days, with a heightened sense of urgency as the number of survivors dwindles, she talks of the Holocaust “with a louder voice.” At the same time, she strives to touch common chords through the language of dance. She wants her audiences — students and adults — to recognize their own experience in her works, what everyone shares, and the importance of standing up against hatred.

Dorfman’s father survived the war with his father, her mother with her two sisters, enduring the horror of camp after camp. They married in 1945 and came to the United States in 1949. Dorfman grew up in Detroit, in a family that “chose life,” she said, and lived it with passion, but also with perpetual awareness of the horror they had witnessed.

When her mother first saw Mayne Mentshen, Dorfman said, “She was aghast. She asked me, ‘Why on earth would you make a dance about a lot of Jews?’” She said she told her mother, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the Holocaust.”

Dorman’s 86-year-old mother, Mala, will be at the performance at CSE (her father, Henry, died in 2001). Speaking by phone from her home in Miami, she told NJJN, “It’s difficult for me to travel these days, but I wouldn’t miss this for anything. My rabbi asked me why I was going, and when I told him what my daughter was doing, he said, ‘Yes, definitely, for this you must go.’”

She recalled her surprise when she first realized how deeply Carolyn had been touched by the Holocaust. “But she grew up in an environment where we talked about it,” Mala said. “Some families didn’t, but I was very open with my kids. If my daughter can help keep these memories alive and tell the world, that is a wonderful thing.”

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