David Dorfman looks more like a social studies teacher or a dentist than the flourishing musician and choreographer he is. After earning a B.S. in business from Washington University in St. Louis, he walked away from a career in retailing. Since 1985 he’s directed David Dorfman Dance, playing this week at BAM’s Next Wave Festival.
“I wanted to dance from when I was a kid. I have this distinct image of tugging on my mother’s apron strings and telling her I wanted to open a dance school. I’d seen the June Taylor and Peter Gennaro dancers on TV specials, and I thought they were cool. When I was doing my athletic thing, which was basically my whole life, I used to imitate James Brown, with a baseball bat as a microphone. I wanted to be in my high school production of West Side Story, but I didn’t have the courage to audition.”
Now, the 45-year-old observes, “In the bands we put together for our dance productions, often I’m playing an instrument or two or three, and I’m dancing. There’s influences from the Jerk and other dances in my new To Lie Tenderly. I was on all the sports teams, but also in the bands and the impromptu comedy-sketch things. I became class clown, musician, athlete guy. As I look at our brand of dancing, including the work I’ve done with Dan Froot and Stuart Pimsler, I think it’s not that far off from my grade-school or high-school desires. I didn’t know what modern dance was until I was almost out of college.”
He was an unusual athlete, in it for the physical pleasure as much as to win. “The movement was the primary thing. We’d play this tackle football game in the snow—you’d run and avoid being tackled. It wasn’t to keep score, but to keep running and utilizing your dodging skills. It was a show and practice of determination: not to let anyone or anything bring you down.
“Now I make physical metaphors all the time—that’s my job. The ideas of camaraderie, potential teamwork, and also the cruelty that happens in any adolescent group have taken a primary place in the work we do. There’s a key image in Subverse, of Tom Thayer getting his pants pulled down repeatedly. It’s absurdly funny, but at the same time humiliating and sad.”
Dorfman started to lose interest in baseball in college. “I entered in liberal arts, but I got freaked out—I thought everyone was so much smarter and more sophisticated than me—and went into the business school. In the business school I could quantify something. It could be black-and-white. I’m glad I did it because it made me so miserable that I could absolutely invest myself in artistic pursuits.
“My third year, I went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, as a change of pace. There, the captain of the baseball team was also the lead in many theatrical productions, and I had the role model I’d been looking for all my life. Second semester I went into a very beginning dance class. That was it; there was no turning back. I started dancing in student pieces; I didn’t know what I was doing but I had a lot of desire. I was interviewing with IBM and the phone company and they’d ask what was my most significant achievement, and I’d say I was in the student dance concert. I got a couple of job offers, but not a lot.
“At that stage, I thought I’d never get to a place where anyone would want me to perform, so I figured if I learned to teach and choreograph, I might be able to have a career in the field.” Friends introduced him to master teacher Martha Myers at Connecticut College; she invited him to study toward an M.F.A.
“Then Daniel Nagrin came to St. Louis to do a solo concert. He became my dance dad. The stars fell into the right order. That summer in New London I was able to study with him and became his friend. I’d quit Saks Fifth Avenue two weeks before in St. Louis—I was penniless, eating three yogurts a day. I did his errands. He was the key artistic influence. I saw what he was doing in his sixties. If he can do that, I said, I can make something of myself at 23. His intellectual rigor, his passion, and his physicality were just mind-blowing.
“There’s one section in To Lie Tenderly where I ask people where, five or 10 years ago, they thought they’d be now.” If you’d asked Dorfman at 22, he’d have said “an accountant, living on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.”
“My company’s been together more than 10 years, the core of it. I think the idea of working with a group and maximizing your experience stayed with me from working in bands and on teams. I’d be searching out opportunities in the corporate world where that made sense to me. I love getting at what makes people tick, individually and in group situations. I could subtitle one of our pieces Organizational Behavior. We’re creating rituals where people can state their individuality and see how it fits into a communal setting.
“I had this incredible fantasy life when I was a kid, when I was Mr. Scholar-Athlete. I find the relationship between what lies beneath and what’s on the surface endlessly fascinating. That’s what this evening is about. I’m interested in looking at the kinds of rules we construct as adults, which are a continuum from the way we learned them as kids. The role that I play in Subverse is semidevilish, semiactivator and support. I’m a benevolent devil, but there are parallels between the way I see myself in this company and in the world. It’s not coincidental that I’m so much on the outside of To Lie Tenderly, grappling with where I should be. Dancing onstage? Playing music in the beautiful arches of the Harvey? Sitting in the audience? Or in the wings, rooting on the wonderful company?”