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Original Issue

Athletes' Suites

David Dorfman turns jocks into performing dancers

Lights dimmed, and the crowd oh 950 began to hush. As the theater director welcomed David Dorfman Dance to Burlington, Vt., Dorfman, a stocky man sporting a crew cut, an umpire's padding, a jockstrap and cup, and an antique football helmet, bolted out from behind the curtain and careered into the director, knocking him to the ground. Then, as the audience tried to make sense of what it had just witnessed, pandemonium broke loose. Twenty-five athletes, dressed in black pants and white shirts, hurled themselves down the theater's aisles and tumbled onto the stage—somersaulting into the Jan. 22 premiere of "Out of Season: The Athletes Project."

For the rest of the performance the athletes—marathoners, skiers, basketball players, cyclists, gymnasts, weightlifters—all from the Burlington area, joined the six members of Dorfman's New York City-based dance company in unconventional choreography that wove risky and demanding athletic movements with delicate gestures: Bodies hurtled, collided, slalomed, arched and soared. Under Dorfman's guidance the unlikely cast blurred the line between sport and dance, reworking the rules that govern both. A tackle became a caress, a woman outwrestled a man, and sprinting got a runner nowhere fast.

The athletes in Burlington had volunteered to participate in a three-week residency (three hours a day, six days a week) that culminated in that first performance. Following the premiere of "Out of Season," Dorfman, 37, set up similar residencies in Helena, Mont., where he worked with 14 local athletes, and in New York City, where two dozen athletes participated in a June show that sold out all three nights of its run. This week and next, Dorfman brings his company to Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.; in February he'll visit Chicago, and in April, St. Louis.

Despite his achievements as a modern dancer and choreographer—Dorfman has received four National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, has won an American Choreographer's Award and has been hailed as "one of the most mesmerizing performers in contemporary dance" by Dance Magazine—he has one foot planted on the playing field. "Athletes and dancers have so much in common," he says. "Yet you always have athletes calling dancers fairies and dancers calling athletes Neanderthals. I'm trying to bring the two camps together."

The son of salespeople who sold everything from blankets to jewelry, and encyclopedias door-to-door, Dorfman grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Chicago. He lettered in both football and baseball at Niles West High in Skokie. Between games he played in a rock band and took up meditation.

It was not until his junior year in college that Dorfman tried his first dance class at the University of Illinois—during a leave of absence from Washington University in St. Louis. And it wasn't until 1977, after he had graduated with a business degree from Washington and was working as an assistant manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis, that he realized he wanted to make dance his career. He left Saks in April 1979, two weeks before inventory-taking, and enrolled in the renowned master's dance program at Connecticut College in New London.

At Connecticut, instead of thinking up ways to coordinate set dance movements, Dorfman dreamed of tackles, rolls, end runs, near misses and collisions. "Athletic events are so dramatic in and of themselves," he says. "And breaking away for a touchdown—that is incredible choreography." For his first solo performance at the college Dorfman wore a business suit and a football helmet and used a tape recording of the "Win one for the Gipper" speech from the movie Knute Rockne: All-American as his accompaniment.

WANTED: Athletes read the posters that appeared everywhere in Burlington last November. Dorfman had no idea who would show up at his Sunday-morning audition. The 60 applicants were also unsure of what to expect. "We figured he'd be egocentric and difficult—dancers tend to have that reputation," says JoAnne Cats-Baril, a triathlete. There was considerable bewilderment in Helena, too: "They thought they'd be doing step aerobics," says Marilyn Daumiller, an administrator at the Myrna Loy Center, where Dorfman's company performed.

Instead of a prima donna or a male version of Jane Fonda, the athletes met a 5'7", 180-pound man wearing baggy jeans and graffiti-covered sneakers. Dorfman, they found, was an amalgam of David Letterman, Charles Barkley and Harry Houdini. One fitness trainer who drove her teenage daughter to the Burlington audition was so taken with Dorfman—"He was easy to cozy up to," she says—that she ended up staying too. She and her daughter, a gymnast, performed a series of lifts and catches in the project's first performance. Included in the final cut in each city were men and women of all ages, sizes and shapes. Using local talent, Dorfman was able to put together dynamic, enthusiastic crews.

The athletes cannot simply take their sports skills and transfer them to the stage. Dorfman challenges his volunteers by giving them assignments that combine physical ability with outpourings of emotion, eventually incorporating some of these exercises into a 20-minute ensemble performance. In one exercise the athletes enact a variation on televised college football introductions; instead of listening to information about their height and weight and the position they play, they themselves are asked to describe how they feel during a game. "Naked. Victorious. Vomitous," said David Buxbaum, 22, last year's captain of the swimming team at New York University.

Early in the Helena performance Joel Lindgren, 18, one of the nation's top junior mountain-bikers, leaped across the stage in mammoth bounds that were glorious to watch. A few moments later he was sliding along the black dance floor "like a slug." he says. The movements were designed to point out the contrast between the superhuman and the most elemental. "I didn't just want to show these healthy, luscious-looking bodies at the height of athletic ease." says Dorfman, "but to show a different side as well—the vulnerability, the effort, the entire life cycle of a gifted athlete."

During each residency Dorfman has the athletes imagine that the stage is a pool of water and that they must save someone who is drowning. "From water polo I learned how to grab people by the bathing suit and pull them out," says Willy Cats-Baril, 38, a triathlete who teaches a course in "decision-making under uncertainty" at the University of Vermont's business school. "But here was the gentle movement of helping another. Juxtaposing physical explosiveness with gentleness may be natural for the artist, but not for the athlete."

Like Dorfman, the project's five other professional dancers—three women and two men, who perform with the athletes and help choreograph their performances—have sports backgrounds. Tom Thayer, 32, played football throughout high school and, like Dorfman, didn't take his first dance class until college. He was impressed by the volunteers' raw talent. "I was awed by the wild lifts and jumps they did in rehearsal, by their grace and ease in hurdling," he says. "It showed me what the body can do."

"Dance—especially in David's work—is about improvising," says Peggy Peloquin, 39, who ran track in high school. "There is competition with yourself, but there are no winners and losers."

"When you're making a dance, there is no right or wrong," says Carol Kueffer-Moore, 34, who also teaches high school dance in New York City. "One man really wanted to learn the exact steps. He was a perfectionist. Many of the athletes thought they had to be perfect, because in their sports they had to be the best."

Performances have differed from city to city, depending on the experiences the different athletes have brought to each residency. In Burlington, Dorfman choreographed the story of Rob Lattanzi, 25, a former competitive cyclist who claimed he had lost his "killer instinct." In Helena, Steve Simpson, 29, began striding slowly back and forth, working his way through a lone sprint as Dorfman described the prejudice the gay triathlete has faced in the sports world. In New York, two wrestlers who had competed in the 1984 Olympic trials found themselves performing an intimate duet, a spotlight encircling their lunges, thrusts and holds.

"Out of Season: The Athletes Project" received standing ovations in Burlington, Helena and New York City. And while audiences have certainly enjoyed the performances, it is the local athletes who have benefited most from them. Willy Cats-Baril had balked at a suggestion by his wife, JoAnne, that he audition for Dorfman's residency. "As athletes, our bodies just function, they don't speak," he says, remembering his initial skepticism. "To close our eyes and let our bodies speak—this is very hard for us. It's something every athlete should try once: to get a new perspective on your body—it's like finding out the earth is round."



Dorfman (standing) recruits all manner of local talent as his company tours the country.

Catherine Burnett lives in New York City and is a regular contributor to New York "Newsday."