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Whitney Tucker, Raja Kelly, and Kendra Portier in David Dorfman's "Prophets of Funk." Photo courtesy Christopher Duggan.

Copyright 2012 Nicolas Birns

NEW YORK -- As I was mooching around in the downstairs lounge of the Joyce Theater before the January 24 performance of David Dorfman Dance's "Prophets of Funk," several dancers from Dorfman's company offered to teach steps to audience members willing to volunteer to come on stage at the end. Though I am not at all a dancer, I remembered a focus group at the Joyce some 15 years ago in which the leader told us that anyone who dances, in whatever capacity and however informally, is a dancer. So I decided to volunteer. As a college teacher I have spent years making a fool of myself on stage before fairly large audiences, so I had nothing to lose. I was then taught some dance steps, including a stylized Michael Jackson moonwalk, preparatory to coming on stage later.

Thus I watched the ensuing performance with the awareness that, soon enough, I would be up there on the stage doing, albeit far less well, what the dancers up there were already doing. This made for a different kinesthetic of watching, akin to observing another academic give a conference paper. Moreover, that I had done the steps, including making gestures like the pointing motion that was a leitmotif of the piece, gave me an internal comprehension of the mechanics of what was happening. In his closing remarks, Dorfman recognized that at most dance performances many people in the audience are not just spectators but participate in the dance community -- as dancers, choreographers, critics, impresarios, and funders. Having us on the stage dissolved the divide between spectacle and spectator and also gave concrete ground to the communitarian claims made in the piece.

Dorfman's homage to rock-funk legends Sly and the Family Stone is a feel-good evocation of carefree funk, a salute to a late 1960s, early 1970s era when multiracial harmony and a general sense of infectious joy seemed socially possible. It would be easy for Dorfman to view (as others have) this music as quaint nostalgia in a way that would be a mode of white privilege, yet the message is that the carefree, celebratory togetherness of a song like "Hot Fun in the Summertime" is also possible now. Members of the Sly and the Family Stone band (though not Sly Stone himself) actively cooperated with Dorfman in producing not a period revue but an evocation of highly contemporary possibilities for social change, paralleling those of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The dancing was highly evocative and made the music even more alive and persuasive. The costumes, by Amanda Bujak (especially some truly funky orange pants worn by Raja Kelly as Sly), and the lighting, by David Weiner, both harkened back to the period of the group's big hits, brimming with psychedelic, tie-dyed outrageousness. The flashy screen-projected media by Jacob Pinholster was not quite in this idiom but its splashy cascades of light and smoke added contrapuntal buoyancy. Dorfman used the legendary hits of Sly and the Family Stone, "Family Affair," "Stand!" and, for the audience-onstage encore, "Everyday People" and "Dance to the Music," but also some lesser-known songs. One of these, "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey," punctured any too-smooth sense of Sly and the Family Stone as indulging in a heedless spree of cross-racial healing. Beneath the exuberant horn-blowing and chanting of the band's songs is an undertone of chaos and randomness, audible in simply how long the songs can go on, indicating an improvisation reminiscent of jazz and its ethos of the open end. This can be seen in videos of the actual band's performance, in which Sly Stone, while performing "I Want to Take You Higher" invites the audience to participate in ways which shake them out of the ordinary. Dorfman takes after him by the multiplicity of elements in his work, including spoken voice by dancers, as well as by Sly Stone himself, interviewed by Dick Cavett, which added another layer of tonality to the work.

The choreography was equally fluid, totally in sync with the funky music. Dorfman himself, evoking a band manager-like figure, gyrated in a deliberately faux-hipster mode, halfway between a Damon Runyan low-life and a maitre'd at a Yuppie restaurant. The dancers -- of both genders and including both white and African-American performers -- had different modes, which involved different levels of intensity and exaggeration. Kyle Abraham's stoic albeit comic cool played well off of the brilliant flamboyance of Raja Kelly. One solo female dancer, Whitney Lynn Tucker, provided a more stress-filled choreography, contributing a still-joyful but slightly abstracted, more downbeat counter-narrative. There was a deliberate self-consciousness to the groovy dance steps, as if Dorfman's choreography was having fun with the idea of fun. Not just ‘mere' fun, though; the ‘prophets' in the title 'Prophets of Funk' is meant to be taken seriously -- at one point a dancer delivers a kind of mini-sermon -- and religion scholar David Kyuman Kim, Dorfman's colleague on the faculty of Connecticut College, was a key advisor to the piece.

There was, though, a grainy materiality to the dances, referencing the sense in which funk means something like 'the stuff of life,' particularly steps, with their suggestion of the inevitable ungainliness of even the most elegantly trained bodies. The dancers engendered creative euphoria and cautioned against false illusions of effortlessness. It was not dance that was so virtuosic that no one but a professional could do it; sitting in the audience knowing my turn would come, I was encouraged by the deliberate fumbling and spoofing onstage -- a description of one of the dance moves, "Syncopated Chop Suey" is indicative -- which reassured me that my bodily inadequacy was in some way artistically anticipated. Dorfman has used Sly and the Family Stone's music as a vehicle for us all to exhibit our strengths and weaknesses and to use dance as a way to realize the promise of a better tomorrow that Sly Stone's multiracial grooves augured over forty years ago -- and still augurs today.

Nicholas Birns is a literary and cultural critic living in New York. His web site is

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