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Choreographer Brian Jeffery gets less ephemeral

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By Jack Helbig

Choreographer Brian Jeffery, the 37-year-old founder of the experimental dance company Xsight!, has earned lots of kudos over the years for his group's daring performances, which meld movement, music, and theater into shows that defy easy categorization. But increasingly, acclaim is not enough. "When a show is done, it's gone," he says. "Unless you were there you missed it. I'm not left with anything. As I get older that's been a problem. I did another show. I lost all this money. Not enough people came to see it. I'm so hungry to find something tangible--I need something to remain."

When Jeffery first arrived in Chicago in 1979 he wasn't thinking about much beyond getting away from Cedar Falls, Iowa. "I come from a lower-income white-trash upbringing," he says. His father worked as a salesman, pushing vacuum cleaners, washers, and dryers at a local appliance store. His mother was a switchboard operator at a small company. "She worked an ancient board with all those plugs and stuff," he recalls.

Jeffery's parents separated when he was still a kid, and he was raised mostly by his grandmother. "She was a bartender in a really great dive," he says, "a biker bar called the Blue Moon--with a pool table and everything." He would go to the Blue Moon after school and hang around or do chores until his mom got off work. "Instead of allowance I'd work for grandma's tips."

He got Cs and Ds in school, and at home he was treated as something of a black sheep because he was interested in the arts. One summer he got a work-study scholarship to an arts camp at the University of Illinois. Another year he got a job working in a summer-stock show in Iowa City.

Jeffery graduated a semester early, when he was 17. "I said, 'I gotta get out of here and get on with my life.' So I went to Chicago on the Greyhound with literally just my duffel bag and $400 I had earned." He didn't know a soul here. "I got off at the Greyhound station downtown--it was still that nasty one on Randolph. And then it started getting dark. 'I guess I'd better find a place to stay. Where is the nearest Y?'"

For a month or so he lived at the Lawson YMCA on Chicago Avenue, then moved to a transient hotel in the Rush Street area. "It was primarily a whorehouse," he says. "This was in '79, '80 on Rush Street, before it was cleaned up." He became friends with the hookers. "We'd have coffee during the day, and I'd sit in the window at night watching what was happening on the streets--because I couldn't afford to do anything. I'd see the girls working on the corner and these nasty 60-year-old guys picking up on them. And I'd yell, 'Yolanda! Yolanda! Hold out! Wait for something better!'"

Most days Jeffery hustled around town auditioning for any work he could find--in theater, TV commercials, industrial films--and he made enough to squeak by. He also started a couple of acting classes but couldn't afford to pay for all eight weeks up front. So he took dance classes, which he could pay for one lesson at a time.

Eventually he got hired by Chicago Dance Medium. "It was crappy money," he says, "but still it was 150 bucks or so a week. It was something you could live off of." He even managed to move out of the transient hotel, supplementing his income with modeling gigs and TV commercials.

Then in 1983 he got hired as a pickup dancer for Mordine & Company Dance Theatre. That's where he met Tim O'Slynne, the associate director and a rising talent. "We didn't like each other at all," Jeffery says. "Our personalities were just too strong." But something happened while they were on tour in Ohio. When they got back to Chicago, he says, "I had him over for dinner, and he never left."

Before meeting O'Slynne, Jeffery says, "I knew I was attracted to men. I'd had random experiences with men. But I'd never had a boyfriend or a lover or dated men. I was still dating girls, because that was easier to figure out. I was 20."

Just before that first date, Jeffery had auditioned for a French dance troupe, the Ballet Paris Montparnasse, and two weeks after the date he got a call from the company offering him a job. "They said, 'We will send you a contract. Sign it. There will be an airline ticket for you; come to the office to pick it up. We need you tomorrow.' It seemed like the perfect opportunity to run away."

He was elated. "Yes! From trailer park to Paris in three years!" But he was also sorry to leave Chicago and O'Slynne. "We wrote each other every day. Hundreds of dollars' worth of phone calls back and forth for almost a year."

Two weeks after he landed in Paris he learned the company was going to relocate to Cairo because the founder had fallen in love with an Egyptian. So for almost a year he lived in an apartment on the Nile and toured with the troupe around the Middle East. They became regulars on a daily variety show. "The show could be compared to the Carol Burnett Show," he says. "It was on every night during Ramadan. We were the exotic Europeans--or what they wanted to idealize about the West. We would do skits, segue numbers, be extras in larger scenes. I would do everything from being the straight man to being the funny man to being the guy who got the pie in the face." They became minor celebrities. "People would mob us asking for autographs."

But Jeffery couldn't stop thinking about O'Slynne. "I was losing my mind," he says. Eventually he broke his contract and returned to Chicago. "He was still in my apartment with my stuff. He had basically left his life and moved into my space with nothing but a washer and dryer, his dog, and a few random works of art. If I'd never met Tim, I probably would never have come back to the States."

O'Slynne found Jeffery a place in Mordine & Company and a position teaching dance at Columbia College. In 1987 they left the troupe, and the next year they and Mary Ward founded Xsight! Performance Group. "We had an amazing rapport, the three of us," says Jeffery. They were given residencies in Alaska, Arizona, and, in 1989 and '90, Amsterdam. "Xsight! was just taking off."

Then things began to go wrong. "Mary Ward kind of freaked out with her personal life," Jeffery says. "She was feeling a little overwhelmed. So she changed her name to Maya, married, and moved to Santa Fe. Tim and I were, 'Well, what are we going to do? Let's pick up the pieces.'" They staged a dance version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but Albee had it closed down after one performance.

"Tim's and my relationship suddenly became difficult," Jeffery says. "We had a number of separations. The company fell apart." Yet each time Jeffery and O'Slynne separated, they reunited. "It became very clear that Tim and I were going to be together till we died. We were going to drive each other crazy and torture each other. We were passionate in love, but there was a lot of abuse and a lot of happiness--and a lot of everything. We slept together. We had our off time together. We created together. We took our vacations together. Our lives were so codependent it was really not healthy."

Then in 1992 O'Slynne was diagnosed with AIDS. "We had no idea," says Jeffery. "We had had this strictly monogamous relationship. Suddenly he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS with Pneumocystis pneumonia. He could have died that day."

O'Slynne lived another year and a half. Jeffery put Xsight! on hold to care for him and was with him when he died.

After O'Slynne's funeral Jeffery began trying to revive the company. "Xsight! used to be a mom-and-pop company," he says. "Now it was just pop." He brought in Marianne Kim and Peter Carpenter, the first of several new members. "A month and two weeks after I buried O'Slynne, I did another Xsight! concert--which just about killed me. You know what I called it? 'Wait'll It Happens to You.' Some people were shocked. 'That is so irreverent.'" He laughs. "Well, when was Tim reverent?"

A year later Xsight! did another evening of short works, most of which were created by the new ensemble as a whole. It opened with a piece called Cycle of Unveiling that earned Xsight! the Chicago Dance Coalition's Ruth Page award for choreography and performance of the year. A year and a half later the company did an evening of messy camp and outrageous physical humor, "Kickin' the Devil Around." It seemed to be an exorcism of sorts, in which Jeffery explored his unresolved feelings about his own upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks (it included his grandmother tending bar at the Blue Moon).

Jeffery says his newfound need to create work that lasts is a sign of maturity. His latest show, February 18 through 20 at the Jacqueline Ross Gallery in Pilsen, is a collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Stephan Mazurek. It includes elements that will fade (the conceptual performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights) and artifacts that wouldn't look out of place in a museum (Mazurek's photos and Untold Secrets, a video piece that he and Jeffery created together).

Jeffery and Mazurek have been collaborating since the early 90s--Mazurek created a video for "Kickin' the Devil Around." But Untold Secrets is the first video the two have created that was meant to be more than background for a dance. "The video started as a reworking of ideas in a previous Xsight! show, 'The Illicit Keyhole,'" says Jeffery, "though it is not a video documenting of the original dance." Instead, it is a work in its own right, constructed with members of Xsight! "Yes, there is a story, but it's not a narrative. Yes, there is development, but it's not linear."

Most important, the video, like Mazurek's photos, is permanent. Or at least more permanent than a glance or a gesture or a pas de deux.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dorothy Perry.

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