The mind of choreographer Jody Oberfelder is preoccupied. It swirls with love, folklore and dreams, fixations she shares with another artist of a different medium, Marc Chagall. Oberfelder pulls her ideas and images for dances from diverse sources, including Chinese puzzles and the Brothers Grimm. But Chagall holds a special place in her mind.
“Chagall brings forth the unconscious into conscious imagery, linking logic with illogic,” Oberfelder told the Forward.
On May 4, audiences in New York will witness Oberfelder’s own version of linking, when she presents “Landmarks of Dreams,” as part of the Jewish voices series at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center.
“I’ve been tracking my dreams for a long time,” she said. “In my dreams, I often think in dance images, a swirl going one way or another.” In this dance, she translates those swirls into bodies, as the dancers on stage make interlocking forms. In some of the Chagall-inspired pieces, her dancers seem to fly effortlessly, revealing their choreographer’s background in contact improvisation, springboard dancing and gymnastics.
Oberfelder plays with the themes of dreams, love and folklore and gives them each a three-dimensional human shape. The pieces segue from comical and folkloric to lingering duets between couples that part, dance separately and come together again.
For the music, Oberfelder used longtime collaborators Frank London of the Klezmatics and Rob Schwimmer, a musician who plays a theramin, a little-known magical kind of instrument that responds to vibrations. “If you move your hand in front of it, it sounds like Hitchcock, both spooky and playful,” she explained. In the love duets, the theramin provides a richly haunting backdrop for the female vocalist. In the folklore section, the giddy, orchestrated craziness of the klezmer music pairs with mock Jewish moves that at points prove humorous enough to inspire laughter.
Although “Landmark of Dreams” has rollicking playful elements, the more serious sections have to do with memory and love, just like the art that inspired it. “Chagall lost his homeland and his first wife, left his culture, moved to Paris but retained memories and dreams” of places and people he’d lost, Oberfelder said.
The paintings were just the jumping-off point for the acrobatic choreographer to create something new, fused with Chagallian themes. “There’s a lot of partnering going on,” said Oberfelder. “We learn about life through relationships.”
Oberfelder herself is a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish German man, and she has learned from that partnering. “Your Jewish identity never leaves you, ” said Oberfelder. She consciously tried to put into this dance “the Yiddish quality of a body, someone leaning on someone with that weary oy vey quality,” begging the question “how do we celebrate that we are all human beings trying to get through life?”
Oberfelder is well known in the New York dance world, and her work has appeared at the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center, Dixon Place, the Flea Theater, Joyce SoHo, P.S. 122, Judson Church and other venues. But her desire to be a dancer and choreographer germinated in Israel in the early 1970s, where she lived on a kibbutz and participated in folk dances. “Folk dance brings people together. There’s a sense of community and humanity,” she said. “Dance, after all, is an art made of people.”
Kim Bendheim has written for The New York Times, Fortune and The Nation.