Conn College's Dorfman makes his Broadway debut

Choreographer David Doorman, right, a dance professor at Connecticut College, works with cast members of "Indecent" during a rehearsal at the Cort Theater on Friday, April 7, 2017, in New York City. The show opens Tuesday. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New York — On a recent Friday night, the cast of “Indecent” gives a preview performance that brings audience members to their feet for a standing ovation. During the afternoon, though, the “Indecent” team still is refining and perfecting in rehearsal.

Inside the Cort Theatre — a Broadway jewel whose interior is all deep-red chairs, glinting chandeliers, gold curtains and elaborate molding — the performers gather onstage, where the set is simple but striking. Starkly designed wooden chairs stand in a line. Behind them is an enormous gilded frame, looking as if a proscenium arch has been placed against the back wall.

After brief words from director Rebecca Taichman and choreographer David Dorfman, everyone dives into rehearsing some dance sequences. In a joyous number that boasts echoes of traditional Jewish dance, the actors create moving concentric circles, adding kicks every few steps and then doing it all without the kicks to see if the latter is more effective.

“We don’t know till we try it,” Dorfman says.

They segue into a segment where performers form two lines and lift their arms toward each other to create a bridge that the musicians parade under. In response to the previous night’s performance, Dorfman asks them to make sure those “bridges” are clear but a little farther apart so that the musicians don’t have to duck to get under them.

After the performers run through a different bit, Dorfman tells them, “That was spectacular and had great energy.”

It’s all in an afternoon’s work for the “Indecent” team. “Indecent," a play with music written by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, has come through a trio of previous rhapsodically reviewed productions in New Haven, La Jolla, Calif., and off-Broadway.

Now, “Indecent” has, in basketball parlance, been invited to The Big Dance. It will enjoy its opening night on Broadway this Tuesday.

And this marks the first time Dorfman, chairman of the Connecticut College Dance Department and founder of the acclaimed modern/postmodern dance company David Dorfman Dance, has choreographed a Broadway production.

You can bet that Dorfman will attend opening night.

“I will be there with bells on,” he said with a laugh. “I cannot wait. I just have a grin thinking about it.”

Dorfman said about working on a Broadway show, “I have just found it really engrossing, engaging and interesting to see how it works.”

"Indecent" grew out of Vogel and Taichman's interest in Sholem Asch’s 1907 play "The God of Vengeance" and its history. Asch’s drama is about a Jewish brothel owner who is scandalized when his daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes. The play proved to be a success all over Europe. Asch, a Polish Jew, eventually became an American citizen, and as he came to the U.S., so did “The God of Vengeance.” It opened in Greenwich Village, but when it hit Broadway in 1923, the real drama exploded. The show featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway — and its producers and cast were jailed on obscenity charges.

“Indecent” focuses on Asch and a Yiddish troupe performing “The God of Vengeance.”

Taichman approached Dorfman about working on “Indecent,” having collaborated with him for a 2003 Philadelphia production of the musical “Green Violin.”

“David felt like obviously the perfect person for this piece in that he has this wonderful sense of humor in his work, also wild inventiveness, beautiful movement vocabulary, and authentically knows this sort of Jewish dance world,” she said.

Dorfman is proud of his contribution and of the show, and he said, “It’s been really, really exciting to do, and, at the same time, I want to do more of this work. I love being in the theater. I’ve wanted to do this for a very long time. But I love teaching, I love my dance company, so it’s one of the things I do.”

“Indecent” isn't just Dorfman’s Broadway debut. It’s also the first time that Vogel, who won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “How I Learned to Drive,” has seen her work make it to Broadway, and it’s the first time Taichman has directed a Broadway production. In addition to her many directorial credits, Taichman has been a guest faculty member at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Theater Institute in Waterford; she's also an alum.

'It's all gravy'

After the “Indecent” rehearsal wrapped, Dorfman sat for an interview at the hole-in-the-wall food court, where he often goes, across the street from the Cort Theatre. He talked about “Indecent,” the road to Broadway and the New York experience.

“For me, it’s like, ‘Wow, they put me up in an apartment four blocks that way (he gestures in the appropriate direction), on 48th Street. I work here for a month, this is awesome!’ I have no complaints. It’s all gravy. It’s all really a great learning experience. I’ve been seeing shows. I feel as though it’s going to inform my already narratively inspired modern, postmodern dance work I do with my company. It’s been just really, really great,” he said.

Asked whether there’s more pressure with “Indecent” being on the Great White Way, Dorfman said, “The fact that it is on Broadway, the fact that people are paying higher ticket prices, people have higher expectations — that’s all good.”

As adults, he said, everything people do should become improved, better, deeper and more important.

“So I feel it’s a natural invitation for the stakes to be higher,” he said.

Dorfman, 61, is on sabbatical from Conn College this spring. And he’s busy with more than “Indecent.” He and his David Dorfman Dance have spent this past week in a creative development residency at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass. And he did the musical staging for “Assassins,” which ran March 17-April 8 at Yale Rep.

Of course, creating choreography for a play is different from creating choreography for a dance company. With “Indecent,” Dorfman has had to design movement that isn’t merely decorative; it has been about finding what’s right for the scene and the play.

The choreography pulls from Jewish dance but weaves in other elements, too.

“America is a melting pot. That is very much the subtext or direct subject of ‘Indecent.’ It’s the same thing with the dance ... There are many different influences,” Dorfman said.

And the choreography reflects Dorfman’s imagination. Taichman recalled how Dorfman devised the opening gestural series for the show. During the first day of rehearsal, Dorfman asked everyone to say his or her name and come up with an accompanying gesture. Taichman, for instance, shrugged her shoulders and put her hands in the air. Dorfman employed the performers’ gestures for the piece in the show.

“He created this unbelievably beautiful dance ... David really uses the people and the bodies and the spirits in the room to create the movement,” she said.

Vogel spoke, too, about Dorfman’s fresh approach to movement.

“He’s not trying to be inside the box of what theatrical dance is. One of the things he really does in a magnificent way is how he responds to the music. Literally, I feel that this play dances. He’s not containing the music, he’s not containing the scene or the dance. Instead, it’s very fluid. I think what he’s done is just stunning ... I think he’s lifted the play so it almost appears to float,” she said.

Melding theater and dance

Before he even knew what modern or postmodern dance was, Dorfman was drawn to theater. In high school, he would sneak to downtown Chicago to see stage productions.

“In college, I got more turned onto modern dance. I had the bug from seeing experimental theater to use text, to use vaudeville, slapstick, story, narrative — albeit abstract — (in dance performances). So if I really look at my past, I’ve always been interested in these theatrical forms,” he said.

Dorfman thinks that, in a way, “Indecent” is “kind of experimental for Broadway. This is a show with a minimal set and the subject matter. It’s not like a ‘Hey, everybody, let’s have fun!’ (type of show), although it’s very funny. It has its dark and comic moments that intermingle in this beautiful and poetic way.”

“Indecent” was first performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven on Oct. 8, 2015. It moved onto productions at the La Jolla Playhouse in California at the end of 2015 and then at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in 2016.

With earlier versions, “Indecent” had runs of less than two months. On Broadway, it has the potential to continue much longer. Consequently, Dorfman said, “You want to make it so it is — I hate to use the word 'perfect' — but so close to perfect that it can sit with the actors and musicians" for an extended period of time.

“That was the exciting part — you felt like you were working on something that will have a longer life hopefully ... We get to work on this story that’s going to be told — I got the chills thinking about it right now — eight times a week to a lot of people,” he said.

Indeed, the Cort has nearly 1,100 seats, compared to the 132 seats of Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron saw a preview performance of “Indecent” last Sunday, along with a group of Conn College alums. Dorfman, who earned his master's degree in fine arts from Conn in 1981, has been teaching at the school since 2004.

“I was deeply moved by it. I found it to be ingenious and smart and truth-telling,” Bergeron said.

She discussed how the play is “about the power of theater, and I think you take that in every sense of the word — the expressive power, which is the ability of art to cross boundaries and to broach subjects that are often difficult to express in other ways; it’s about political power, how outside forces can silence; and then ultimately it’s about emotional power, which it demonstrates in all kinds of ways.”

k.dorsey@theday.com

Choreographer David Doorman, a dance professor at Connecticut College, works with cast members of
Choreographer David Doorman, a dance professor at Connecticut College, works with cast members of "Indecent" during a rehearsal at the Cort Theater on Friday, April 7, 2017, in New York City. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Cast members of
Cast members of "Indecent" move through a musical piece during a rehearsal at the Cort Theater on Friday, April 7, 2017, in New York City. The Broaway production is inspired by the true events surrounding the controversial 1923 Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance." "Indecent" opens on Tuesday and currently is in previews. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

If you go

What: “Indecent” 

Where: Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York City

When: Opening night is Tuesday; it will play at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Thursdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $39-$199

For tickets: telecharge.com

For more information: www.indecentbroadway.com

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