Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Legacy Project: Echoes

For her latest project, choreographer Carolyn Dorfman has attracted truly world-class collaborators, including Norwegian Yiddish vocalist Bente Kahan, and Greg Wall, who holds the distinction of being both a distinctive jazz saxophonist and an ordained rabbi. However, her troupe of dancers, the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company (CDDC), is just as impressive in The Legacy Project: Echoes, an evening of dance and live music inspired by her Eastern-European Jewish ancestry, which concludes its two night engagement at the 5th Floor Theater of the Tisch School for the Arts this evening.

Legacy has a strikingly cinematic look, beginning with a moving set of solo vocals by Kahan, as she faces the glowing back wall. Dramatic use of light and shadow also enriches the following Odisea, which vividly interprets the events surrounding the immigration of the first Jews to America in 1654. At that time, the Brazilian Jewry of Recife found it advisable to leave for New Amsterdam, following the Dutch surrender of Brazil to the former Portuguese colonial masters. While at times darkly ominous, it builds to a stirring conclusion, evoking hope and resolve. Featured dancers Mica Bernas, Jacqueline Dumas, Mark Taylor, Sarah Wagner, and Jon Zimmerman set a rather spectacular tone for the evening, which the entire company maintains quite well throughout the program.

As a welcome respite from Legacy’s often serious subject matter, “First Look” is an absolutely joyful blast of energy. Excerpted from Dorfman’s Mayne Mentshn, which tells the story of Jewish assimilation in American told through dance, it could have been a showstopper from a Broadway musical like Grease if not for the decidedly swinging soundtrack composed by Wall. Again, Dorfman’s dancers nicely display their athleticism and charisma in a true crowd-pleasing number.

The centerpiece of the program is Silent Echoes, a dance adaptation of Kahan’s Voices from Threresienstadt about the concentration camp “beautified” by the Nazis for an inspection by the International Red Cross and the production of a propaganda film. It features some of the most intricate choreography of the evening, employing wires and precariously stacked benches. It also includes some particularly pointed lyrics describing the Potemkin village camp as the “‘As If’ Town.”

Legacy concludes with the premiere performances of Tikkun (To Repair), probably the most powerful sequence of the program. Dorfman’s inventive choreography makes haunting use of common-place shoes that suggests the arresting visual impact of the shoes of the Danube Promenade memorial.

The impressive CDDC is frequently quite thrilling in Legacy. It is a deeply human production that synthesizes some painful history into a rousing theater experience. It also benefits from a surprisingly diverse soundtrack, including the Wall’s klezmer and avant-garde influenced music, a composition by the genre-defying jazz-classical cellist David Darling, and Kahan’s traditional repertoire, including the classic “Dona Dona” popularized by Joan Baez, as well as Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs.

Legacy’s lineup of performances might sound a bit disparate, but in fact their thematic connections are strong enough to produce a logically organized, cohesive show. Boasting some of the best dancing to be seen on the New York stage (most definitely including Broadway) and some consistently intriguing music, largely performed live by musicians refreshingly visible to the audience (and not buried in a pit or hidden off-stage), the Legacy program should not be missed. The CDDC perform it again tonight at Tisch, before concluding their current tour with stops in New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts.