Tim Buckley and Bob Eisen

at Link’s Hall

August 4

When a dancer hits middle age, everything begins to harden. The joints begin to calcify, setting permanent limits on their, and the dancer’s, movement. The once-exhilarating activity of making and performing dances starts to seem routine, and threatens to become rote repetition. In response many creative dancers throw themselves into technique–perfecting their particular way of moving. The victories are often hard for audiences to see except as a kind of glow the performance gives off.

Chicago’s Tim Buckley and Bob Eisen, both facing this mid-life crisis, have both achieved breakthroughs in their techniques in solo dances, as could be seen in their performances on the same program of Link’s Hall’s “New Forms/Chance Dance Festival” (Tuesday nights through August 25). In other respects, the two could hardly be more different. Eisen makes dances that are intellectually and physically bruising and that show his fierce inner life. Buckley’s dances are usually comic and musical, with a deft theatrical flair.

What to Do Till the Doctor Comes illustrates Buckley’s established comic style. Five dancers (Lauren Helfand, Christi Munch, Toby Lee, Carrie Hanson, and Heather Sultz) walk onstage and arrange themselves in two rows in front of a pregnant woman (dancer Linda Levine) as if to entertain her. Their energetic dance, with loosely swinging arms and legs and feet slapping the floor, looks like an aerobic tap dance in sneakers. The dancers pause and the “music” for the next section starts–a square-dance caller explaining, then calling a dance. The performers re-form their lines and start a faster, more intricate dance that ends with Sultz being held upside down by her ankles and passed from one couple to another in a square dance from hell. What to Do is funny and charming, but it doesn’t have much depth.

Buckley’s solo The Grave Digger departs from his established style in careful increments. The dance begins in half-light with a burst of eerie music I’m sure I’ve heard in a dozen old horror movies (Bartok’s dramatic Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion). Buckley crosses and recrosses the back of the stage, suddenly turning and peering as if he were a character in a horror movie. (He also resembles the title character in his own Mr. Inbetween.) Buckley’s movement is mainly gestural at first: turning his head, scooping something out of the air with his hand, reaching out to touch something at his side, letting his outstretched hands flutter down. Buckley shapes this simple movement, with witty and elegant tailoring, to fit Bartok’s music. In a way that conventional dance movement could not, this simple theatrical movement makes us hear the music freshly. The fluidity with which Buckley moves and his concentration give the movements a piquancy that makes them very watchable.

In the middle sections of The Grave Digger Buckley introduces some conventional dance movements but keeps them subordinated to his character and to the gestural motions. Seamlessly he blends classic bits of physical comedy–slipping on a banana peel and running into a wall–into the musical flow. In its last sections the dance becomes progressively darker. Buckley drags himself across the floor with open, grasping arms. He stands in one place, constantly moving his torso in circles as his hands jab huge hunks of space into his belly, in a mimicry of hara-kiri. This longish section ends with Buckley falling to the floor, grasping his heart.

It’s not so much that Buckley makes a breakthrough in The Grave Digger as that he finds a new way to approach his technique. The broad comedy of What to Do Till the Doctor Comes gives way to a more detailed, delicate comedy–Charlie Chaplin rather than the Marx Brothers. Buckley’s tragic moments, like Chaplin’s, can be tinged with bathos; but as long as Buckley does not become Woody Allen and take himself too seriously, all should be well.

Bob Eisen’s three solos also have their comic moments–he crawls out of a window in the Link’s Hall space and rappels to the alley below, and later disappears from the stage while a television shows him in the hall outside smoking a cigarette–but even these have serious underpinnings. Crawling out a window is the latest in his series of subversions of the dance space–a postmodern attempt to use the concrete details of a performing space rather than dance in an idealized theatrical space. The cigarette Eisen smokes is actually a joint, a subversion of a different sort. It is painful to see a dancer take such deep, hungry puffs.

Eisen’s dances have always been edgy and serious; they have pushed the edge of dance conventions and always seem to include elements of pain and exhaustion. And no narrative elements explain or justify the pain.

I have always suspected that one source of Eisen’s preoccupation with pain is his struggle to train his body, turn it into a dance instrument. Eisen has a typical male body, without notable dance resources. Yet over the last five years he has slowly made himself into an interesting dancer, light on his feet and graceful, in a body that seems to be made of tightly bunched muscle tied onto lanky limbs. The fierceness of Eisen’s struggle to remake himself spills over into his dances.

Eisen has recently tried to achieve a ballet dancer’s line; in his first solo (the order of the solos was determined by chance) he achieved it. The solo starts with an arabesque, which Eisen slowly turns in a half circle, showing the long line from fingertip to toe. Later the piece incorporates foot exercises directly from a dance class. The overall tempo is grave and thoughtful. The lighting–the natural light of dusk–gave the solo a mood of resignation. Its sound, a hallucinatory Sam Shepard poem set to Joe Chaikin’s music, with lines like “I died the day I was born and became an angel then,” makes the atmosphere desolate as well as resigned.

The middle solo was actually a duet Eisen performs with a television set showing the same dance he’s performing. It’s filled with clever visual contrasts, such as Eisen crossing the stage in a skirt while the character on TV crosses in ski mask and field-hockey leg guards. Eisen uses the television medium in a simple, natural way–perhaps the best use of a TV I’ve seen in dance. This solo is clever and aims for lightheartedness, but it’s woven with darker-hued threads.

Both onstage and on the television Eisen goes through a series of costume changes; eventually the person on the TV is the dancer Joanne Barrett. In the last, jarring costume change, Eisen dances the theme from the first solo nude. In this reprise he seems to say that the arabesque’s balletic line is the simplest, most stripped movement he will ever do. It’s a complex moment I only partially grasp, but it resonates in memory.

The final, improvised solo relaxed the tension, as Eisen threw himself into his characteristic movements of handstands and arms spiraling inward from the shoulder. He alternates short phrases with odd gestures as the solo tapers to a finish.

Eisen will perform his solos for every performance of “New Forms/Chance Dance Festival,” but he’ll be paired with a different artist or group of artists each evening. Buckley will next perform The Grave Digger at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.