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In Performance: dancing on the road to recovery

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Last year was a brutal one for dancer Matthew Hollis. In March his knee gave out during a Hedwig Dances children's show at the Cultural Center. "I kneeled down and it locked and popped," he says. When X rays didn't show any bone damage, his doctor put his leg in a knee brace and told him to take Advil. Hollis worked briefly with a physical therapist and tried massage, but in April he was dancing at Hedwig's spring concert when it happened again. "I just rolled offstage," he says. He wasn't diagnosed correctly until mid-May; he underwent surgery for torn cartilage two weeks later.

"The thing that affected me the most was the feeling that I couldn't trust my own body," says Hollis, 27. "It wasn't working for me, and I'd taken on this whole hypochondriac nature." He recovered quickly from surgery but soon had a whole new set of worries. In June he broke up with his boyfriend, moved into a new apartment, and started going to a therapist. "My entire life changed in a matter of a few weeks," he says.

That tumultuous period is the subject of his new solo piece, The Fattacular, which will premiere this weekend as part of Hollis's first evening-length show, "The Mattacular." "It isn't so much about weight fat as being emotionally fat--about carrying around anger and unhappiness and being swollen and bloated with emotions," he says. "It's like a year of my life cut down to five minutes."

Hollis started studying drama at Columbia College in 1990, but he wound up in the dance department. "I was told I act way too much with my eyebrows and I hiss all of my esses," he explains. "The vibe wasn't there." Dance, on the other hand, gave him "the option of being able to act and move at the same time." He first combined spoken word and movement at the Radical Faeries' 2001 Feast of Fools festival, but it wasn't until he had to have his appendix removed, a few weeks prior to a scheduled performance at Link's Hall, that he really began to synthesize

the two elements. "Since I couldn't move, it forced me into writing a dialogue between me and another person," says Hollis. "It forced me into a full-fledged narrative." In the piece he performed that night, Stitches and Bitches, he sat in his chair and spun a fanciful tale about his appendectomy (and subsequent flirtation with Vicodin) while another performer did the dancing. "It got me into taking tragic events and making them a little more comical."

Many of the pieces that make up "The Mattacular" draw on Hollis's experiences. That After School Special Feeling revisits his high school years in downstate Lansing, and a duet with Brian Robert Hinkle, Cruise Control, is about bad emotional habits. "I'm always looking for somebody to make me happy," he says, "and when I don't find it and I'm unhappy I cope, sometimes, in really unhealthy ways." He'll also perform Tornadoes, Teardrops and Tulsa, which premiered at last year's Nine Bob Dylan Songs festival. Set to Jake Setlak's remixes of the Dylan tune "Just Like a Woman," the piece examines three very different female characters, all played by Hollis.

He doesn't consider these character-driven pieces, which are marked by hand and arm gestures and a lot of jumping, to be performance art. "It's more like sketch comedy that moves," says Hollis. "Dance is like the quiet art--don't be loud, don't laugh. But I like people to laugh a lot, to react in a loud vocal manner when I'm performing. It's like being at a rock show--the louder you scream, the better they are."

The show will open with a showgirl spoof, a dance tribute to Hollis by the Mat-Tresses. (Head Mat-Tress Jyl Fehrenkamp and Hollis are the first recipients of the Duncan Erley Memorial Fund award, which supports artists and performers who explore gay themes in their work.) Link's Hall will be draped with gold crinoline for the occasion and "Mattacular" T-shirts and buttons will be on sale. Hollis emphasizes that it was important for him to do the show now--and do it right--while his knee works and he's between crises. "I'm anxious to see what happens this year--what sort of surgery I have to have."

Performances are Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25, at 8 PM, Link's Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield (773-281-0824). Tickets are $12, or $10 for students and seniors.

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

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