Artistic Director David Dorfman: My Motto is to Invite and Indict!

“I didn't really get into dancing in an organized fashion until college. In college I became a competitive disco dancer and I took my first modern dance class and I was sold.” David Dorfman

David Dorfman is the Artistic Director of David Dorfman Dance since 1987, and a Professor of Dance since 2004. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2005 to continue his research and choreography in the topics of power and powerlessness, including activism, dissidence, and underground movements.

Since its founding in 1987, David Dorfman Dance has performed extensively throughout North and South America, Great Britain, Europe and Central Asia. David Dorfman Dance promotes the appreciation and critical understanding of dance by realizing the creation of new works. His mission is to "to get the whole world dancing."

His company creates dance that seeks to de-stigmatize the notion of accessibility and interaction in post-modern dance by embracing audiences with visceral, meaningful dance, music and text.

By sustaining a vision to create innovative, inclusive, movement-based performance that is radically humanistic, David Dorfman Dance maintains a core commitment to examine and unearth issues and ideas that enliven, incite, and excite audiences in dialogue and debate about social change.

Emy diGrappa (00:09):

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David Dorfman (00:26):

Sometimes I talk about what we do as kinetic diplomacy. The idea that if you're dancing, you're probably not harming another human being.

Emy diGrappa (00:41):

Hello. I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week, we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why? We talk about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care? And what should we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming? And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities? Serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

                 And today, we are talking to David Dorfman. David has a deep desire to get the whole world dancing. He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a four time National Endowment for the Arts recipient, and he is internationally known. Welcome, David.

David Dorfman (01:41):

Thank you very much, Emy. It's a pleasure to be here.

Emy diGrappa (01:43):

Well thank you for being here. And I always want to add that you are the artistic director for David Dorfman Dance.

David Dorfman (01:49):

Yes, our dance company is nearly 30 years old, and it's been one of the giant joys of my life, to direct this company and to see it change, and to have wonderful dancer collaborator in, in all areas. In music, and visual design, in philosophy, to help me with the mission. Which, uh, among other things, is to get the whole world dancing. Sometimes I talk about what we do as kinetic diplomacy. The idea that if you're dancing, you're probably not harming another human being. If you're dancing, you're probably touching and caring, being empathic, and devising a system where you can do something in peace, as opposed to conflict.

Emy diGrappa (02:30):

When did you start dancing? Were you a young dancer?

David Dorfman (02:33):

I, I have, uh, a great memory of pulling on my mom's apron strings when I was about eight years old. And I was convinced that I would start a dance school one day, and I knew the, uh, the outfits would be white shirts and black pants. I'd been watching June Taylor dancers, Peter Gennaro, I've watched a lot of Lawrence Welk growing up in suburban Chicago. But I didn't really get dancing in an organized fashion, literally until college. I took one ballroom dance class.

                 And then in college I became a disco dancer, a competitive disco dancer (laughs) and I took my first more modern dance class. And in that class were a bunch of theater majors. And they were hilarious. They were risky, they did anything, they were having fun. And I was sold. I, I continued with a business degree in undergraduate. But I knew from that moment, and, uh, around when I was 19, that I really wanted to dance.

                 And then when I was 23, I came east from the Midwest and got an MFA, a master's in fine arts in dance, from Connecticut College, not so ironically the place that I am now teaching. I've been there for 12 years as permanent faculty.

Emy diGrappa (03:40):

And how did you go into modern dance?

David Dorfman (03:41):

The bridge from disco dancing went more towards jazz, uh, one of my first jobs at Giordano Jazz Dance in Evanston, Illinois, was teaching senior citizens disco dance. And then when I got, uh, more exposed to modern dance, it had an athleticism. I'd been a competitive athlete, I was a catcher from when I was 8 till I was 20. I played even as a freshman in college. And so that, the notion of a groundedness that was really inherent to modern dance, and basically a theory of anything goes. I liked that.

                 I took ballet classes, but I wasn't very adept at it. I continued to study it, but it seemed that modern dance and post modern, and forms like contact improvisation, which is almost like an athletic sport form, those were the places where I could excel. And so I was drawn to modern dance in that way. And I could combine the athleticism, a certain storyline, and my love of music at the same time. Because I played music when I was a kid as well.

Emy diGrappa (04:38):

Tell us about your dance philosophy and your desire to get the whole world dancing.

David Dorfman (04:44):

Well, whenever our dancers are onstage, we're people. So instead of it being able lines and space, which I also love, it's always about what we're expressing as the people who we are. Not sometimes, we take on exaggerated characters, even stereotypes. I was talking about a, a dance earlier today, uh, done to Sly and the Family Stone music, it's called Prophets of Funk. And it's very, very enjoyable, almost seems like a song cycle.

                 And then we get into the issues of the day that are very, very relevant today, with the racial strife that we're experiencing. But also that, it's very prescient, as Sly was thinking about these things in the late '60s, '70s. So I love to take on character. Much of which is based on who we actually are. We many times call each other by name in our dances. But it's all about people, how people relate to one another, the great things we do, the way we form community.

                 And the bad things we do to each other, and how there can be a glimmer, if not a flood of hope about doing things in a more generous, kind, intimate, empathic m- manner. That's my goal, is to affect an audience. You were talking about think radio. I want the audience to think and feel and experience, and hopefully leave the theater transformed. And with a bit of a resolve to see the world in a different way.

Emy diGrappa (06:07):

What is the intersection that you aspire to in your art form, the intersection of art and humanities? The discussion that takes place after the dance. Or during the dance.

David Dorfman (06:20):

Well, I think that's a great, great point. I mean, is, I always say that our form of art, our movement-based dance theater, it begins the conversation. It doesn't have absolutes. It doesn't solve anything. But it hopefully begins conversations that happen right in the theater, perhaps during the show, right after, perhaps in the question and answer, perhaps in the car or on the subway afterwards, and perhaps on social media or emails after. And the pieces, the movies, the live performances that have affected me most are the ones that stick in my head, in my soul. So that is my intent.

                 It's a rarefied time that we get to be onstage. Our pieces are usually an hour long, and we work so hard, and we hope that, um, the audience comes in. One of my mottos is, invite and indict. So I want to embrace and to hold, but I also wanna challenge ourselves and the audience that come. Like how can we make the world better? So a conversation is key. And humanities, it's all around us, it's expansive. Humanities think and feel about issues that have this historical base, that are changing by the second.

                 So for example, I have a really dear friend named David Kyuman Kim at Connecticut College, he's a professor of religious studies, but also American studies, and a philosopher, really. And he's just organized with his friend at UPenn, uh, John Jackson, this forum called Love Driven Politics. And he has helped me for the last, you know, decade on dances that I've made. So he will come in, and he'll give some movement feedback. He's not a mover, necessarily.

                 But he will go at it from a philosophic viewpoint, from a humanitarian, from a humanities, from a religious studies. And it's things that I wouldn't have thought of. So I love to involve as many different disciplines in the dances that we make. I always feel like we're writing with our dancing. A lot of the people that have been attracted to our company, and currently are in it, are either writers or visual artists, as well as athletes.

                 So I feel that it's all interconnected. Humanities, arts, they're co mingling all the time.

Emy diGrappa (08:28):

Oh I definitely agree. And it's interesting that you're making, basically, social statements, and using dance to do that. So how do you decide what statements you want to be performed onstage?

David Dorfman (08:42):

Well, I have a little method. It works for me, I think, anyways. And that is to mind my own person, for whatever is the hottest topic for me. So coming back again, I came from a need, for me, to evaluate the messes that I've made, and to not leave a giant mess for our son (laughs), and for the rest of the world. And so it's almost like a recycling project, but almost like an emotional and physical. So things and ideas.

                 What is the mess that you've created? What is the mess that's kind of proper, in a lovely way, to leave behind? And then what are the messes we've created that we really need to clean up? We really need to be responsible for them. So that's something that's special for me.

Emy diGrappa (08:42):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Dorfman (09:26):

And so then, I bring it to our group, our creative team, our dancers, who are collaborators. And I say, "Okay, what's in this for you?" Let's do a writing assignment, let's do a physical improv assignment. What is it about mess that we can all unite on, and then go in grossly divergent paths and represent a number of ideas that at their core, have this notion of mess? So that, that's one thing. Years ago, we did a piece called underground. It was loosely based on the Weather Underground, an activist group from, uh, you know, the '70s.

                 And we wanted to see what the notion of activism in 2003 or '04 is when I began the project, it premiered in 2006. And since that time, activism has really been on the rise. But there was this dormancy that I was observing, and I felt, um, that I wanted to investigate it. But it also came from a personal moment that I remember watching, ironically, the Democratic National Convention in 1968 from my parent's house, and seeing all the violence and all the arguments.

                 And this democracy almost unraveling. But I was 13 years old, and I was watching it on TV. I wasn't throwing rocks in the streets protesting. So I wanted to go back. I love looking at history and seeing how it's relevant today. So I find something that's personally attractive to me and then I see how it can relate to the collaborators I'm working with, and then ultimately, the most important thing, the audience today.

Emy diGrappa (10:48):

As you were talking, I was thinking about using that word, the messiness.

David Dorfman (10:52):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (10:53):

Or how we make messes.

David Dorfman (10:54):


Emy diGrappa (10:54):

And the thing that rose to my mind in that instant was immigration, and how it's just this tangled mess that we can't seem to unravel.

David Dorfman (11:04):

One of the many messes that, that we, as Americans, and the world cannot unravel. And the new work that we've had the great privilege to investigate here, while we've been at Dancer's Workshop, is called Around Town. And we have images, on a very personal level, of a wall going up. But in this case it's a wall in an apartment with decorations and photos on it. Because it's a, it's a monologue about romantic strife. But the wall imagery is also purposeful for a wall, a wall that divides.

                 We talk about a love divided. There are many images that are transient. They are people on the move. We haven't used the word refugee, because we don't want to bring every single media image to mind. But we are mining the images of today, which is really, really, really new. People have migrated for centuries, centuries, for all of time. But right now, I think it's, on some level, taking the whole world by surprise. No one really knows how to deal with immigration, on, on many different levels.

                 And the idea of another person in front of you that you don't know, they may look different, they make talk differently, they may have a different language or skin color. Their food their eat, their smell, whatever. Whatever is different, that, I think, is going to be the biggest challenge of the next 20 years. Is, is an empathic response to difference. And so that's one thing that's really on our minds. So we've called it Around Town, like we're this little village of like people, and of unlike people. And how does this village relate to other villages (laughs)?

                 And I think it's really, really important. So that's on my mind a lot.

Emy diGrappa (12:41):

Oh that's very interesting. And you grew up in Chicago?

David Dorfman (12:43):

I did.

Emy diGrappa (12:44):

And now you live in New York?

David Dorfman (12:45):

Yeah, well I live in New London, Connecticut, with my family. Uh, my wife and 15 year old, who are in, coming back again this piece. Uh, we lived in New York for 20 years, a couple years after Sam was, was born, we just wanted a little more space around us. And, uh, our dance company's a company in residence, so they come up about a month of the year. We also do a summer session. And then I go to, to New York frequently and work with them there. But we're actually happy to be out of New York, to have a little breath and grass and water.

                 We live a block from the famous river that goes into the Long Island Sound, and we actually really, really love that. We see water every day on our way to work, and it's very rejuvenating.

Emy diGrappa (13:21):

And that's why I love Wyoming.

David Dorfman (13:22):

Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful here (laughing). We don't want to leave. We've been treated like we're the most special guests in the world, and it, the generosity that has flowed our way is really remarkable. And we're flattered, and, and honored to be in your community.

Emy diGrappa (13:38):

Well, we're honored to have you here. And thank you for talking to me today.

David Dorfman (13:41):

(laughs) You're so welcome, Emy.

Emy diGrappa (13:48):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa, this Think WY podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at