Dancers whose imperfections are just about ... perfect

Timothy Buckley is a modern Everyman, the kind of performer for whom just getting out of bed in the morning is a plunge into the unknown. Life for him is one big pitfall, but the more he fears what's coming, the more enthusiastically he throws himself into it. He's a manic survivor. His new piece, ``A Leap in the Dark,'' given in a tiny brick-walled space at La Mama, is a parable of our times. Mr. Buckley, the timid bumbler who may be trying to be a dancer, learns to live in the world by somehow fitting himself in with a bunch of highly individualistic other performers. Resilient and resourceful, they can tolerate him even though the dance they do together isn't the most harmonious finale a show ever had.

Buckley begins the piece with a song, very positive and inspirational, about helping the other person and doing the best you can. Dressed in a frightful baggy outfit involving two different red plaids, he clutches the microphone and looks depressed. When he finishes, another singer, Angel Dean, drapes herself against the wall and wails her song in a heavy country accent.

The dancers arrive one by one: small, feisty Rocky Bornstein and small but softer Nancy Alfaro; burly Frank Conversano, who wears a lumberjack shirt flapping open over a gray undershirt; and Thom Fogarty, who has long bleached-blond bangs, a ponytail, and a dangly earring, and wears a sort of smock over his trousers. They form a line, with Buckley off to the side, and a stentorian voice instructs them in a series of centering exercises. ``Your arms are a tree. Your feet are rooted in the ground. Your body is a cylinder.''

Buckley tries to interpret all this literally while the others go through their own rituals of relaxing. As they get deeper into themselves, and he gets more dislocated, the voice offers more and more threatening images. ``Your throat is tight. Your brain is heaving. Your end awaits you. And PLI'E!''

``A Leap in the Dark'' proceeds in a series of dance, dance-class, and song episodes. The dancing is fast and flung-out, but dangerous because the space is so narrow. The dancers develop a lot of momentum, only to crash into the walls or trip over each other. Oddly, in spite of the almost violent force of their movement, their bodies can get soft and squishy on impact; they never seem to hurt themselves. Buckley hovers around them, trying at first just to keep out of their way and gradually to imitate what they're doing. In one duet sequence, they wrap themselves intricately around each other while falling. This alarms Buckley, who tries to untangle them and avoid being engulfed himself.

Still later, he finds himself partnering Miss Bornstein. She slithers around him, he holds out a stiff arm for her to lean on, she dives for some other place, he lurches to get where he can support her, she slips through and onto the floor. She's always about three moves faster than he can think. While he's looking the other way, she leaves and Mr. Conversano takes her place. Buckley tries to cope, as if it were the same dance. Though Conversano is a round, solid substance, he's as agile as Bornstein, and Buckley isn't any better at getting a grip on him.

By this time, Buckley's almost as integrated with the group as he's ever going to be. He's stumbled through the classes till he can not only simulate the dance combinations but also do a solo of his own - full of twists and contradictions that miraculously undo themselves in time to prevent injury. He accompanies Miss Dean singing a song about something that's ``tap, tap, tappin' at mah garden gate.'' The rhythm he plays with dogged accuracy on a drum is completely different from her song. The dancers dance anyway.

Tim Buckley works with a flexible producing group called Otrabanda, which usually includes Bornstein and Mr. Fogarty, composer ``Blue'' Gene Tyranny and writer-actor-lighting designer Roger Babb. Their collages of words, music, and dancing are very much in the current style of cabaret/mixed-media/satire, but I find them funnier, dancier, and truly endearing. Like most of the audience, I wished ``A Leap in the Dark'' hadn't ended so soon.

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