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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."