Performance artist Ayun Halliday discovered massage therapy while traveling in the jungles of Sumatra.

“I fell into a thicket of bamboo and dislocated my knee pretty badly. So I dragged my ass back to the guest house where we were staying and lay there for four days.” At the house a Sumatran man kept saying to Halliday, “You must massage! You must massage!”

“I was like, “Ahhhh, get away from me! I want ice! I need somebody to stick a needle in me and drain the blood out!”‘ But there was no ice to be found. And draining the wound with a needle wasn’t a good idea, since every scratch quickly turns septic in the tropics. Finally an Australian traveler heard about Halliday’s plight and recommended that she consult an old man who lived nearby. By then Halliday was willing to try anything, and a few hours later the Australian drove up with the old man on the back of his moped.

“He was some sort of an Islamic holy man, but he also knew how to do massage as part of his Islamic deal. At first he was embarrassed to lift my skirt to look at my knee. He massaged me for a while and then did a kind of chiropractic move, and it was like, whoa! You are healed!”

Though she wasn’t aware of it at the time, Halliday had been traveling through Southeast Asia looking for some sign of what to do with her life. She felt she was drifting through her 20s, her only goal to avoid her parents’ lives of middle-class desperation. Her mother was the fashion editor of the Indianapolis Star (she “didn’t find writing about fashion very challenging”), while her father was a banker who secretly longed to be an English teacher.

Halliday wanted to rebel against the straight and narrow. In high school in the early 1980s, her classmates were “preppies,” but she immersed herself in “the 60s thing.”

“All my friends were in argyle socks. I liked to wear wreaths of flowers on my head.”

Not surprisingly, that didn’t go down well at the Park Tudor Preparatory School. “We had to wear kilts every day, and I kept getting sent home for having long dangling earrings or being suspected of not wearing a bra.”

Halliday later studied theater at Northwestern University yet found after graduation that she was “really bummed by the idea of going to agents and auditioning for everything.

“I was gonna drop out of theater and be a poet when a friend of mine, who was the dramaturge at Stage Left, said, “I think you should audition for Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. I think you would really like it.’ I thought, well, what the hell.” She had never seen the show, a rapid-fire performance of 30 plays in 60 minutes, but she decided to try out anyway.

“I wrote this piece where I played a tap-dancing fetus addressing George Bush. And I kept rehearsing it in my little studio apartment in Rogers Park and I thought, man, I really feel like an asshole. This is really bad.”

When she arrived at the audition, she refused to do the monologue but offered to perform “something I wrote a couple days ago. And they were like, “No! No! Do what you prepared!’ I said, “I can’t!’ And instead I pulled out this poem I wrote about my grandmother who had died a few days before, about whom I always had unresolved feelings. I read it, and that was it. I was in.”

Performing in the late-night hit had its rewards, among them a certain notoriety as the woman who, whenever there was a break in the action, “made a bagel” by pinching the skin around her navel with her fingers. But the romantic boho life of the non-Equity actor was beginning to wear thin. “I spent eight years after Northwestern waiting tables, temping at Amoco, doing things that were really sapping my spirit. I am really a grasshopper, not an ant. I don’t like to work nine to five. I don’t like to wear panty hose.”

The encounter with the Sumatran holy man gave Halliday ideas about a new vocation. “Massage seemed like a good way to be of service to people and not have them think of me as this temporary girl who is coming in to serve coffee and make seven dollars an hour.”

As soon as she returned to Chicago, she enrolled in the Chicago School of Massage Therapy. Now a certified massage therapist, Halliday divides her time between acting and massage. She has a private practice and also works with the AIDS Alternative Health Project, treating clients who have tested positive for HIV. She says the project advocates alternative and holistic medicine: “acupuncture, Chinese herbs, western herbs, chiropractic, energy work.”

Halliday’s new solo show, Bagel: Anatomy as Simile, synthesizes the two aspects of her life into what she describes as “a towering entertainment built on over a year’s worth of lecture notes from the Chicago School of Massage Therapy’s 600-hour certification program.”

Like her first solo show, Farang, which recounted her travels in Southeast Asia “while firmly gripped in the jaws of a dying relationship,” Bagel: Anatomy as Simile is about loss. The piece begins with an image of death, the description of a cadaver being dissected, and ends with a discussion of amputations–literal and metaphoric. It’s structured as an anatomy lesson in which the teacher keeps interrupting herself, meditating on cultural obsessions with body image and free-associating memories of friends and lovers present and past.

At one point Halliday compares heartache to phantom pain. “Something strange happens when you lose a leg,” she says. “You still feel pain in the foot that’s not there.” She says the same thing is true of ex-lovers. Long after breakups, you still remember their birthdays or think you see them out of the corner of your eye in old familiar places.

Halliday’s witty but highly digressive narrative moves down the human anatomy the way a massage therapist works down the body, feeling for the knotty parts, lingering in places that need special attention. “There is such a profound emotional component to touch. It will happen in massage that someone will start laughing uncontrollably or crying. Sometimes it’s just that one little crack in the dike, and then it all starts rushing out.”

Bagel: Anatomy as Simile is at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, through May 6. Shows are at 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays; there’ll also be an 8 PM performance on Monday, April 17. Tickets are $7; call 275-5255.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.