Every Thursday, the theatre in our small town put on a variety show. Students from the college and local people who believed they could act or sing did ample numbers for the program weekly. The audience was treated to scenes from famous plays, takes on popular songs, spoken word poetry. The acts did not bowl us over as a rule, but most people enjoyed the evenings and felt entertained. I numbered among the few who went really hoping to spot talent. Brilliance shows up even in small towns like ours I believed. And I thought seeing or hearing some great, undiscovered singer or actor perform would be a magnificent event, that everyone would admire the talent revealing itself on the stage and raise no question of the artist’s greatness. True flare could do no less.
Holding out these high hopes, I watched Abel Q. dance in the variety show. It appears he performed with a troupe in our area but recently had branched into solo acts. A blonde mesomorph whose energy you easily felt, Abel seemed an intelligent, deliberate dancer as he moved on stage at our town theatre. The young man performed to this jazzy, insistent orchestra music, full of blazing brass and woodwinds, his form in a close-fitting, blue bodysuit. He gave the image of confidence as he spun vigorously then leaped and landed firmly. If some of his jumps had a crazy wobble to them, even the most critical forgot as he went on to deliver the most amazing spins and turns.
His number made me enthusiastic, and I sensed he might have talent. The rest of the audience believed much like me; people spoke well of his performance to their friends and on social media, so Abel developed an excellent reputation. Folks went to the Thursday variety show simply to see him dance as he continued his number week to week. It became a regular event for me to hear people praise him in the auditorium before the program. “He’s stupendous, they say,” I overheard one heavyset man announce. “A real artist, my friend thinks him,” an older woman said proudly.
As his reputation grew, Abel gave his performance a remarkable twist, one nobody anticipated in their wildest dreams: he added tin plate to his dancing outfit. When the other show performers asked, as I later learned, Abel said he meant to impress his many, new fans in the audience. “I’d like to show them they’ve made a difference to how I feel about dancing. After all, they see me in a whole new light.” The tin registered his new emotional state, it seemed then. As no manager at the theatre objected–they all hoped he would go on performing by then–he was allowed to go on in the outfit. The first time dancing in it, he had two, large plates on his chest and a pair of metal shoulder pads over his blue bodysuit. He danced in the tin, turning his chest out because of the plates, the metal pads giving a small clap as he raised and dropped his arms. The tin gave him little hindrance, overall; in fact, his movement seemed to gain accent for it. The following week, he added tin arms, segmented at the elbows, to the earlier tin on his costume. He spun, bending those arms into sharp, bright Vs. He raised them like swords as he arched his body mid-air. He progressed in two weeks to having his legs in long and narrow plate, cut at the knees. He kicked high, tin legs pumping like engine pistons. At a turn, one metallic leg scissored the air with a hard but round swoop.
I watched, figuring Abel might not be too comfortable, moving in all the new metal. He had become, in truth, a huge, tin package. Still, I was amazed to see him perform as well as he did in the outfit. None of us in the theatre could look away while he moved on stage. The tin had made him into a spectacle as much as his dancing skill.
The people fondly called him the Tin Man for it. The name, even more than the tin, grew his appeal. Folks from three or four towns away came, eager and excited, to watch “the tin guy” at the theatre on Thursdays. Hardened types, who had never cared for performance art, attended the show to see if the “the metal spectacle” lived up to its hype. The newcomers filled every seat in the theatre, even the balconies right by the stage. Their faces shone in the shadows, their talk, a contented buzz. And Abel Q., the Tin Man, performed for them. He earned their applause and their praise.
Abel built up his tin suit the whole while. The new tin appeared duly every week as if he could not perform without some fresh plate or pad on him. His metallic chest spread, the pectorals bulging like an oversized box top. He put tin oblongs that were like construction beams over his arms. His legs he plated like thick columns, each like cannon barrels. The act of adding to the tin became his compulsion, I think.
The new suit put a lot of weight on the man. Its size and strong angles offered difficulties left and right. None of it phased Abel, however. He made every attempt, demanding though it were, to perform as we had known. He leapt, bowing hard over his new, boxed chest to create his popular mid-air arcs. His shoulders pushed on that chest to do it, everyone could tell, but it rendered his motion only the more amazing. When he leapt long and appeared to float over the stage, his tin silo legs held level at the waist, never sagging or twitching. He smiled at the audience as he kept those legs raised, much as if he enjoyed the challenge. So went the dance by the now highly tin-bound performer whom we loved.
Then came the Thursday night when Abel, packed in his tin suit, sprang into a signature leap. He always had come down from the spring neatly on slightly bent legs. This time, though, he shifted to a side before landing. I don’t know if he planned to or if he felt suddenly in the moment that he should. However, the shift, or perhaps how he felt landing, had some effect on him. He went on to take shorter, quicker steps when he usually moved in longer, measured ones. He circled farther back, then farther upstage than his norm. I think several of us felt uneasy seeing it. We had not known his dance to veer in this deliberate a way, and it felt wrong. However, these changes were only a start. Next thing, his suit began coming apart. Abel leapt suddenly, when he never did at a certain point, and some tin on his chest became loose; it struck his metal abdominals with a fierce chink that we heard over his jazz-style dance music. The loose tin hung to a side then, askew and out of place, dinging and pinging at odd moments as he kept moving. In the following weeks, Abel’s dance became increasingly peculiar. In lifting his tinny arms once to leap, he threw his left arm across his chest plate, so that they banged together. The loud, hard motion made it seem he had struck at himself, as in self-violence. In a certain performance, he crossed a leg before another to start a favorite turn. He let one leg hit the other, however, which let off this pronounced clang that shattered everyone’s attention.
As Abel continued clanging, parts of his burnished tin fell and crashed on the stage. He spun and an impressive pectoral broke from his torso and clattered hard by his feet. A surprise hitch at the shoulder sent a tin pad tumbling down his back to the floor. Panels broke from his arms and legs, leaving his plated limbs pockmarked with holes.
Abel did not prevent the tin from falling, coming loose, or smashing together. The nonchalant way he let it all happen made it seem he was helpless over the events, like a passive observer. The whole time, Abel danced on, smiling at his audience. His confident face showed alertness, focus. He moved energetically, perhaps more than we ever had known him. Many in the audience did not like it. They had come anticipating a dance full of handsome turns and leaps, neat runs. They expected Abel to perform in his great tin suit just as everyone had said. More than a few people were upset. In the middle of his tin-dropping performance, disappointed members of the audience got up noisily from their seats and stormed for the exit. “Just junk like his outfit is made from,” one man cried at the stage as he left. Abel paused at times in hearing and seeing the people go, but quickly went on, smiling. He knew he was performing and ought to keep a positive aura.
In the weeks that followed, Abel opened his number wearing the full suit everyone had come to admire; he felt his attachment to the metal as much as anyone else, it seemed. However, he bound together his outfit by thinner, weaker straps to his body, and the tin dropped and clanged the more quickly and readily. At times, he arrived on stage missing an arm or leg plate. This left awkward gaps in his outfit that let you see the clothes he wore now under the tin. Abel had stopped, in fact, wearing his blue body suit and switched to a beige, cotton one. Its near flesh color turned off a whole new cadre of people in the audience. Many later told me they felt like he was baring his body to them, a much different feeling than the pure, sky color gave in his first outfit. However, Abel danced as if he did not mind the awkward gaps in his tin or his peculiar new uniform. He leapt, kicked, and turned. Even as the strong, thick plate fell from his back, he gave a fabulous spin when nobody anticipated one.
The people who continued to come to the show were amazed that Abel performed as he did despite the disarray of his suit. His new, remarkable moves had as much skill and vigor as his old ones. He danced excellently whether he had on all his tin or if the tin was falling or if he was reduced to his beige suit. His dance offered a strange mix of all these contraries. As I watched, I came to think that, really, he was shaking loose from his tin to prove to everyone that he had grown as a dancer on our stage. With each humiliating, loud fall of plate, he showed he could give a new kick or leap that should be done and done right. He must have felt a few, or even many, crashes of his metal parts not enough for it, either. He was supposed to keep on at it. On a deep level, he was kicking at his own confines by breaking out of his tin, heeding the idea that he would get somewhere more worthwhile as an artist. I think he took on the ridicule and humiliation as his suit fell in the interest of realizing that better dance in which he believed. He had smiled on us even as the people stormed from the theatre with that very hope it seems.
Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. He has published stories recently in Blink-Ink, Zephyr Review, Potato Soup Journal, and The Write Launch. His website: www.norbertkovacs.net.