David Dorfman Dance - photo by Kate Enman
When Sly and the Family Stone was heating up the radio waves in the 1960s and early 1970s their music meant much more than the danceable beat listeners remember "taking them higher." Sly's group was one of the first racially and gender-integrated bands in American music history -- and as such, struck a blow for social integration in the popular, subversive American language of rock and roll.
David Dorfman remembers those days well. Working out in a basement gym, the baseball and football player and his basketball-playing friend had Sly and the Family Stone's muscle-pumping songs playing on an 8-track player as they exercised. Then the very first day of his college life at Washington University in St. Louis Dorfman caught the band playing, for free, on the campus quad. He was elated.
Choreographer Dorfman's Prophets of Funk had to wait a few decades to come to fruition. It was only as an adult -- when he drove out to the Wolf Den in the Mohegan Sun Casino some twenty minutes from his home in Connecticut, where he now serves as Chair of the University of Connecticut's Dance department and his troupe is the permanent company-in-residence -- that he heard Sly and the Family Stone's now classic numbers played by a mix of original members and new musicians. Charmed again, he got a copy of the band's autographed picture and slipped their manager's business card into his wallet. Dorfman says he was already sketching out a dance to that de facto mix tape on the drive home.
Prophets of Funk is the last work in a triology that has taken Dorfman from the 1860s to the 1960s. Dorfman's earlier works, underground and Disavowal, combine with Prophets of Funk to create a time machine journey of politics and race, resistance and settlement. The Bates Dance Festival has had a role to play in every step of this journey: over the years, Dorfman has either worked on or presented each of the three works here.
Asking him, Dorfman says, "the entire trilogy is about action and hope - what we do with our lives when faced with everyday challenges to our ever-changing personal principles." Company member Raja Kelly explains that the sequence argues "stand up for what you believe in (undergroun), stand up for who you are (Disavowal) and stand up for what you love (Prophets of Funk)."
Within the framework of joyful, inveterate movement invention – every move that could be culled from the dancers on television's Soul Train, and a few deep and grounded steps they never imagined in addition – Dorfman creates a forum for a young, partying ensemble. The dancers teach and deconstruct each other's moves, and engage in new ways of interacting, flirting and clowning.
But Dorfman doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths, either. He shines a light on minstrel show stereotypes and sexist assumptions. In rehearsals the young generation of dancers of his current company found that they had been insulated from some of the most
egregious of these slurs. They were sobered by the recognition that these had coexisted with and alongside the band's unabashed self-assertion.
David Dorfman likes to say that he's a card-carrying choreographic postmodernist, which means that it's not his tendency to illustrate song lyrics. Yet for Prophets of Funk, he has been willing to follow the message inherent in the score and follow Sly Stone's call for people to behave better. By doing so, his intention is to go beyond mere nostalgia. In the pleasure of social dance, Dorfman has found a deeper agenda. "The experience of art," he says, "starts the conversation."
© 2011 Debra Cash