TIVOLI — Carolyn Dorfman’s parents survived the Holocaust. And their stories, defining their struggle and redemption, feed the tales this choreographer tells.
Her eloquent dances, hailed as “intellectual and emotional journeys,” are memoirs lamenting and celebrating her Jewish heritage — from the Holocaust, to the diaspora to the adjustment to life on foreign shores.
Yet it’s not her subject that makes her work resonate. It’s her ability to connect the Jewish experience to a universal one. And in that way, as The New York Times put it, “they hold immediate appeal.”
Her dances are also memorable. Consider her last program at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center. There, the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company staged “Odisea,” a memorial to the Jewish exiles of Brazil. As a church bell tolled, five dancers rushed about with their heads down, clinging to each other. They let out silent screams and then scurried and scattered, bumping into each other. In the end, they form a solid block and shuffled way. While their fate was ambiguous, Dorfman related the confusion, disappointment and fear with a rueful poignancy that touched everyone there.
“I’ve found the more specific you are, the more universal the story, the more authentic it feels,” she said.
This weekend, Dorfman returns to Kaatsbaan and she will hold up others examples of her emotive artistry. The weekend bill, featuring four works, will include “Cat’s Cradle,” set to cabaret songs by Ilse Weber, a prisoner of the Nazi ghetto Theresianstadt. The songs, composed in captivity, will be performed by Bente Kahan, a Norwegian singer/actor who is known for her rendering of Jewish music.
Kahan won acclaim for her album, and subsequent one-woman show, “Voices from Theresianstadt.” Kahan’s interpretations were marked as honest and heart-wrenching.
Dorfman loved her performance, too, but was especially struck by Weber’s compositions. The choreographer was amazed that such soulful, poetic and hopeful music could have risen out of such dire circumstances. She found the songs symbolized “the ability of the human spirit to rise above its realities and continue to create and to dream.”
With the songs as the template, “Cat’s Cradle” touched on memories of Dorfman’s mother and her two sisters, all of whom survived the Nazi camps and, in later years, would knit as they told family stories. “Cat’s Cradle” is a metaphor for knitting together a family with a common history, as well as connecting with the past to understand the present and move onto the future.
“It’s a testimony to the human spirit,” said Dorfman. “They are threads that connect the human spirit.”
The program will also include an excerpt from “Mayne Mentshn” (“My People”), a work that Dorfman says “resonates from the very depths of my soul.”
This dance was the first in her series, the Jewish Legacy Project, to which she continues to add to today. The dance explores the pain and loss experienced by her parents during the Holocaust. She followed “Mayne Mentshn” with other dances, including “Cries of the Children,” also on the Kaatsbaan bill, that again touches on her heritage.
“It was not a conscious decision to make dances about being Jewish or the Holocaust,” said Dorfman. But once that shift occurred, she ran with it, channeling highs and lows. Dorfman’s goal was not only to express her history and culture, however, but to join with the world at large.
“It’s about people, humanism. I care deeply about the individual; I value the individual,” said Dorfman. “I want to maintain the human connection, the universal story without losing distinctiveness. That’s my mission as a storyteller.”
Pain is universal
She also said she wants to point out that pain is pain.
“I’m so tired of people who say their pain is greater than my pain,” said Dorfman. “My story is not more precious than yours. Change the uniform and it could be the Khmer Rouge. There are victims all over the world. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man. It’s all bad. I want to be specific enough that it relates to a broader humanism.”
Ultimately, she added, it’s not so much about the suffering, but survival. Still, she admits, it’s a weighty challenge to do justice to the horrors of the Holocaust. “I can’t touch my parents’ story,” she said. But she will continue to try because “it reminds people.”
“I wanted to give voice to the survivors. Their voices are diminishing. I fear that if I don’t share this work, history will say it didn’t happen. I want to bear witness so it will never happens to anyone again.”
WHERE: Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, Broadway, Tivoli
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25, $10 student rush
MORE INFO: 845-757-5106 or www.kaatsbaan.org