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.