Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2014

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Mike LeDuc '14, three-time national champion in track and field, with his teammates. Clockwise from top right: Mike LeDuc '14, botany major from Canton, Conn.; Ian Rathkey '14, East Asian studies major from Old Lyme, Conn.; Ben Bosworth '17, economics major from Dorchester, Mass.; Niall Williams '16, economics major from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Daniel Burns '16, government major from Alexandria, Va.; and Aaron Samuel-Davis '14, classics and dance major from New London, Conn. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

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The Happy Maker

The Happy Maker
David Dorfman MFA '81. Photo by Ian Douglas

The infectious personality of David Dorfman MFA '81 is key to his success as a dance teacher.

By Jennifer Stahl, editor in chief of Dance Magazine


It's the end of a four-hour rehearsal downtown in New York City, and David Dorfman is giving his dancers notes before one final run-through. He talks about timing issues and storytelling strategies. He suggests they keep the energy “half-playful and half-decisive.” He asks one dancer if he was “doing counterpoint” earlier, and the dancers laugh. They know this is Dorfman's polite way of saying “you were going in the wrong direction.”

Any other company might be filled with frayed nerves three days before opening night in Manhattan. But Dorfman's seven dancers seem more like kids on a playground. With giddy smiles, they hunch over and hop, they pick each other up and throw one another around, they kick and cheer. Dorfman tells them, “Beautiful guys, that looks incredible.”

Dorfman leads David Dorfman Dance, which is considered one of the most influential American modern dance companies. Dorfman — a professor and chair of the Dance Department at Connecticut College — took a sabbatical this past spring as his company participated in a month-long U.S.-sponsored cultural exchange in Armenia, Turkey and Tajikistan. “His company meets the highest standard of artistic excellence,” says Michael Blanco, project director for DanceMotion USA, a program of the U.S. Department of State produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “David understands how dance can be used as a tool for cross-cultural communication.”

He's also undeniably successful: In the past three decades, Dorfman has won four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, one from the Guggenheim Foundation, three from the New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as an American Choreographer's Award and a New York Dance & Performance Award (“Bessie”). He brings everything he's accomplished back to the College, where he received the majority of his dance training under his mentor Martha Myers and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1981. Four years later, he founded David Dorfman Dance, which has been company-in-residence at Connecticut College since 2007.

A Human Aesthetic

Recently, in New York at the 92nd Street Y's Harkness Dance Festival and on tour in the Near East, Dorfman performed the opening solo in “Lightbulb Theory.” He choreographed the piece in 2004 in response to the death of his father; he and the dancers ask out loud, “Is it better if a life ... a light ... flickers, or if it just goes out?” In the written program, Dorfman notes that the piece is “a stab at the notion of 'sweet non-irony.' How can we create something that we feel is beautiful, perhaps more so than 'cool' or 'hip,' and how can we slow down to see and feel each other more intimately?”

On stage, Dorfman dances with such raw, unapologetic honesty it might be uncomfortable to watch if he were someone who cared about being “cool” or “hip.” His choreography impresses audiences with quick, quirky footwork, risky partnering and a complicated athleticism. Dorfman feels the movement's most important job is to be human. A review in The New York Times aptly noted, “The opening solo for the portly Mr. Dorfman established most of the work's movement motifs — an assailed wheeling and twisting, a crashing to the ground and picking oneself up — and also its big themes of mortality and how to live.”

At 58, Dorfman says he's too old to care if others think he is cheesy or cliché. He often says things like, “I like to think that there's always joy just around the corner.” As Raja Kelly '09, a performer in Dorfman's company, puts it, “David is a happy maker.” His infectious personality has been a key to his success, in a field in which almost no one looks anything like him.

“I once wanted to make a press-kit cover, listing everything that's ever been said about my body,” says Dorfman. “Everything from 'he looks like he should work at a hardware store' to 'stocky,' 'chubby,' 'unlikely.' I enjoy being the average guy doing something you wouldn't think he could do.”

Coming to Connecticut

Growing up in suburban Chicago playing competitive baseball, Dorfman first became enthralled with movement as he watched soul legend James Brown, as well as Peter Gennaro (who collaborated with Jerome Robbins on “West Side Story”) and the June Taylor Dancers (who appeared on Jackie Gleason's televised variety shows). “But I didn't think you could be a jock and a dancer,” he says.

As an undergraduate, he majored in business at Washington University in St. Louis — but he caught the disco bug. “This was the '70s,” he explains. “I wore tight sparkly shirts and platform heels.” He stepped into his first structured dance class during his junior year spent at the University of Illinois. He had met a student there who was captain of the baseball team and the lead in theatrical productions. “I thought, 'Gosh, finally a role model. You can do both!'”

He knew he wanted to dance, but he finished his degree, graduating with honors in business administration. “I was applying for jobs with AT&T and IBM, and they'd ask, 'Mr. Dorfman, what was your most significant achievement of the last six months?' And I'd say, 'Well, I loved being in my first dance concert!'”

As luck would have it, a couple of years after graduation, choreographer Stuart Pimsler, who earned his M.F.A. from Connecticut College in 1978, convinced Dorfman to get in touch with Martha Myers. Founder of the College's Dance Department in 1971, Myers led it until 1992. Connecticut College was then known as the home of the American Dance Festival. Many of America's greatest choreographers premiered works at the College, artists including Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and others.

When Myers auditioned Dorfman, it was clear he didn't have the necessary training. His enthusiasm won her over. She accepted him as a provisional part-time graduate student. “David was the kind of student every teacher hopes for,” says Myers, the Plant Professor Emeritus of Dance. “He was very bright and responsive — and a lot of fun to work with.” The two still remain close, and Dorfman refers to her as his “dance mom.” “He has this extreme generosity,” Myers says. “He can make anyone feel like he's known you for 100 years.”

Bringing the Dance World to Campus

After graduating with his master's degree, Dorfman formed his own company in 1985. He's a natural networker, and the dance world fell for him and his compelling brand of dance activism. “Since I started late, I didn't have the ideal body for highly technical dancing,” he says. “I always knew I was going to do something along the lines of physical theater, with text and an emotional edge.”

Dorfman sees dance as a series of physical metaphors. When two dancers partner with one another, it's a statement about relationships. He says his “dance dad,” the late Daniel Nagrin, always stressed that if there are two people on stage, it is immediately political on some level.One of his common movements, a limp, is inspired by his mother, who had multiple sclerosis and couldn't use her body fully. “It's a metaphor for lack of freedoms in any aspect of one's life,” he explains.

Dorfman brought his talents and experience back to Connecticut College when he began teaching in 2004. He decided to move to New London to have a more home-based life with his wife Lisa Race, a choreographer who is now an associate professor of dance at the College, and their son Samson, now 13 years old. “Samson pretty much grew up in the lounge outside the Myers Studio (named after Martha), and he dances with us now on stage,” says Dorfman. “I share an office with Lisa, the love of my life. I literally get to look at her all day long, and to take her very inspirational class as often as possible.”

Dorfman brings more than great knowledge of the field to the dance studio: He is a natural teacher. Students often talk about the way he makes them feel like he's on their side. His warm-hearted personality pulls anyone stuck in a shell out of it. “David taught me the importance of community-building through dance,” says Betsy Miller '05, a Connecticut College dance major who now teaches at Providence College. “When you step away from the front of the room and join the students in a circle and practice a movement combination together, something magical happens.”

He was promoted to department chair in 2006. Most recently he was elected to the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee (FSCC), which he will also chair in 2015-16. “This college is the perfect size. It's a place where you feel like you can get involved in its socio-political life,” he says. “I look forward to coming in to work each day because my colleagues in the department are the most talented people on earth. I'm always learning something from the brilliant minds here.”

One of those minds belongs to David Kyuman Kim, an associate professor of religious studies at the College who has served as a creative consultant and scholar-in-residence for Dorfman's company. They have also co-taught a course together, “Religious Expressions of Everyday Life.”

Students who come through Dorfman's department — about 10 majors and 10 minors each year — remark on his high standards. “David has a lot of etiquette for learning,” says Raja Kelly '09, once his student, now a dancer in his company. “He was really strict about us always having our eyes up, not on the floor, being prepared, listening. He believes our body's response to other bodies is very important, not just as dancers but as people.”

Dorfman's students also have been quite successful: he estimates that half or more of Connecticut College's dance majors get jobs working as independent choreographers, or dancing with important modern dance companies, small experimental companies or off-Broadway. “My hope,” says Dorfman, “is that my students become really great citizens of the world and enjoy their lives. I see dance as the vehicle for that training.”

He dances right alongside his students, taking yoga and ballet twice a week, and modern dance class as often as he can. He tries to lead by example. “My dad used to tell me, 'It's really great you're successful, but I'm happier that you're kind to the people around you, they trust you, and you trust them.' That's always been my guide.”

In Turkmenistan this past February, Dorfman was telling members of a state-run, all-female company that his choreography incorporates a lot of partnering. One dancer asked if he would do a lift with her. “Here we were in this mostly Muslim country, where we were told you don't even offer your hand, especially not to a female,” he says. “But we went for it, and she did great and it kind of pushed through some of the taboos you might expect. We had this interpersonal moment together, immediately communicating through dance.”

Those moments remain at the heart of what he does, whether in the studio or on stage. “I've always felt very strongly about the inspirational power of dance,” he says. “Even though it's got its own aesthetic concerns — you can enjoy it, you can judge it, you can analyze it, be with it on a million different levels. But at the core, for me, is the hope that what I do encourages people to go beyond what they thought was possible.”






First person: Jill Muchnick Liflander '92 – Starting to dance professionally at age 42

I've met two Connecticut College dancers — who studied with David Dorfman — at the Rivertown Artists' Workshop (RAW) in Sleepy Hollow, New York, near where the three of us are living now. These two women are professional dancers, a path that I too have decided to follow.

It never occurred to me that at age 42 I would embark on a professional dance career. But that's the way life works! Dance has become my vehicle for feeling authentic, for sharing my creative voice, for experiencing joy.

I took my first dance-technique classes ever at Connecticut College in 1988. I majored in anthropology, then earned a master's degree in elementary education, to teach, and then to entertain children as a ukelele-playing, dancing and singing puppeteer.

At RAW, I recently choreographed and performed an African- and Brazilian-influenced piece, and presented this piece at the annual fundraiser.

Reading through the gala program, I found Rachel Pritzlaff '13, who had double-majored in dance and gender and women's studies. She is a fluid dancer who runs a choreography lab at the Tarrytown YMCA and is performing with the Reject Dance Theatre and the company started by Raja Kelly '09 called the feath3r theory.

I also saw Cynthia Bueschel Svigals '96 perform a stunning duet. She majored in dance and has toured internationally with a variety of companies. It's never too late to dance!

Editor's note: We welcome anecdotes from alumni on a wide variety of topics. Please send them to ccmag@conncoll.edu.


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