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In performance: 30 characters in search of something

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We stumble down some steep steps and through a heavy door to reach the bowels of the Dance Center. My guide to this well-lit, overheated underworld starts gesticulating and talking as soon as we hit the basement floor.

"You see?" says James Grigsby. "It's just like Hollis Sigler's other work--naive, with a hot use of color." What looks like a big, slightly asymmetrical canvas is lying on the floor, half-painted to resemble a fireplace. Some hard-edged red, green, and purple chairs and a couch, their seats at impossible angles, stand at a distance.

Grigsby sits on a chair with a dangerously raked seat and says, "It's quite comfortable really--if you've been drinking heavily." He explains that the set's schematic windows will have real curtains, which will blow in a gentle breeze, and points out that the coffee table has two drink glasses painted on it. But he claims that the elements don't add up to an identifiable room. "I think it's in outer space--not real outer space, but perhaps somewhere here in Chicago."

In a week all the pieces will have been constructed and painted and carted up to the Dance Center's stage for use in In One Year and Out the Other, a collaborative effort that's the brainstorm of Shirley Mordine, director of Mordine & Company Dance Theatre. Grigsby is emphatic that this is not just decor, not just a background: Sigler is a well-known Chicago painter, and her work is as important to this piece as the live performance he and Mordine will be giving.

Grigsby, a Chicago performance artist, has also written the text for this duet, a text he says is a kind of chronicle: "It's a little bit like 30 different soap operas--there are 30-some characters and we never get a lot of information about them, we never know where they're going or how they resolve their dilemmas. But I'm hoping that you begin to get a picture of these people--which is not happy, not good." Part of the text is three personal ads that sound frighteningly like the real thing.

Grigsby, whose intense gaze seems to shift from the deeply sincere to the ironic almost imperceptibly, has strong opinions about text in performance: "It has to be like a radio show. Have you ever heard a position paper read at a conference? You think, 'I can read. Ship this to me in the mail and I'll read it.' Give me something I can't get printed."

In a theater, he says, "There's a lot happening at once, and the audience can grasp only so much at a time. So one has to strip away. Theatrical text has to be like a really good poem--if you take one word out, you've fouled up the entire construction. I don't think my work is so precious that we couldn't remove a few words, but I really am careful to edit and distill."

To research this text, Grigsby browsed the self-help shelves in a bookstore. "It made me so depressed. Instead of buying 16 of these goddamn self-help books, go into a little bit of group therapy and get it solved. Whatever happened to reflection? Read this book, this will solve it for you--you just have to make notes every morning before you start out your day and you'll be fine. People are looking for quick fixes, because we're all so damn busy." It's not Grigsby's aim to make fun of people, however. "It's too easy to do, it isn't fair--and I don't believe anyone learns from that."

Besides, Grigsby is too sympathetic. Thinking about how tough life is calls to mind a friend who recently gave birth to her first child; she claims there's been a conspiracy to keep women from knowing how much it hurts. He has so many friends having kids now, he's wondering (perhaps facetiously) about the possibility of a piece on childbirth: "So what's the big deal? People have been having babies for 40,000 years. Except it still is a big deal. You get pregnant, and you feel you thought you knew your body pretty well--and all of a sudden you're on Mother Nature's computer and she's in charge. You have no control. You realize you're plugged in to the universe or something. It must be wonderful and scary. I just love that dichotomy: pregnancy is not a big deal, but it is a big deal."

That calls to Grigsby's free-ranging mind a much-loved dog, a gentle, well-trained creature who completely changes personality when she has a bone. "You can take it from her, but . . . She's a different dog. It's much deeper than she is. I love her for it. You're talking about centuries of dogness."

Of In One Year and Out the Other Grigsby says, "I don't know a lot about the work until the first performance." But we do know that it has costumes by artist Elise Ferguson, lighting by Ken Bowen, and a music collage of Maria Callas recordings by Richard Woodbury. It opened Thursday, with two other new works by Shirley Mordine, and will continue tonight and tomorrow night, May 10 and 11, as well as May 16-18 at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan, at 8 PM. Tickets are $8 to $12; call 271-7984 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.

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