Timothy Buckley

at Link’s Hall, through March 21

Timothy Buckley may be as valuable a teacher as he is as an artist–which means extremely valuable. His work is characterized by technical proficiency, imaginative construction, and psychological depth, and he has a strong interest in pushing dancers into nondancer realms. He already has something of a legacy in Chicago, though he’s lived here only since 1988. For his 1990 full-length dance-theater work Mr. Inbetween a handful of local dancers mastered his deadpan surrealist theatrical style; four of them went on to form the delightful Sock Monkeys, a group that extends his style into the realm of pure metaphor.

With Jinsky Pinsky–A Night in Tights, Buckley works similar magic with three dancers who are well-known to Chicago audiences: Carrie Hanson, Lauren F. Helfand, and Christy Munch. They have to handle a lot of dialogue and dramatic scenes. In fact their dancing abilities become secondary as they bash their way through this extraordinarily demanding physical comedy, which leaves them literally gasping for breath on more than one occasion. Luckily, all three pass with flying colors. The work never quite comes together, but it’s gratifying to watch performers stretch beyond their usual limits so successfully.

Jinsky Pinsky is built out of collisions, both literal and figurative. The piece is set in a rehearsal hall where Jinsky Pinsky (Buckley), an unmistakably wacko man who believes he’s Vaslav Nijinsky, is attended by three equally wacko women who dress as nurses and bring him endless cups of medicinal tea in an attempt to quench his fiery imagination. Pinsky insists he’s been invited to Paris to present a new dance, for which he must invent steps that have never been seen before. He demands that the women rehearse nearly to the point of collapse.

Placing these four frantic characters in the same room is like mixing four volatile liquids: every few minutes someone blows up. Pinsky, sure the world doesn’t appreciate his art, feels ignored. One nurse can’t stand having to chase Pinsky around the room to give him his tea; another nurse hates her cheap costume. In typical slapstick style these characters are continually thwarted by the physical world, adding to their frustration. They’re rarely able to stay out of one another’s way and end up spilling onto the floor over and over again. The only set piece, an upright piano, is a heavy, ungraceful obstacle that always seems to be in the wrong place. The performers dive into their exhausting comedy routines, understanding that farce is funny only if the characters take everything very seriously.

Jinsky Pinsky also exploits the collision of sophistication and naivete. For every beguiling gesture (putting a piece of paper into the piano and typing out a letter on the keys) there’s a moment utterly devoid of imagination (Pinsky yelling at one of the women “You’re a nurse! Do nurse things!”). In addition, the reality of the carefully articulated stage world, with its childlike party decorations and wedding-cake costumes, is continually compromised as the performers step out of character for brief moments to acknowledge the limitations of the space, the set, the costumes. The women go “offstage” through doors that clearly lead to closets. At one point everyone dances in heavy coats and hats to simulate being outside in winter, but the bulkiness of the clothes makes the dance completely graceless.

As a result of these tensions the piece has a giddiness and instability that parallels Pinsky’s unpredictable mental state. And because the performers seem so comfortable with Buckley’s theatrical language, they find enormous range within the confines of the lunacy onstage: deadpan lunacy, grandiose lunacy, wired lunacy.

Jinsky Pinsky is built of intriguing elements and supported by committed performances, but it never quite bridges the gap that separates the performers from the audience. Mr. Inbetween’s title character watches a series of bizarre developments with a sense of wonder and confusion. He’s a counterpoint to the lunacy, standing just outside it, yet drawn to it at the same time. In effect he acts as a surrogate audience member, offering an enlightened point of view on material that might otherwise be wholly confusing. No one in Jinsky Pinsky maintains this important distance from the lunacy, making it difficult for the viewer to find a way into the work.

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