It's been 40 years since Alvin Ailey staged his first show, a modest seven-dancer concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and it's easy to imagine now that the late choreographer might be stunned by how much his idea -- to give black American dancers a place to work -- has flourished since it took root.
This most American of modern dance companies, and one of the country's most popular artistic exports, was born of a quintessential American story. Ailey, a small-town Texan boy transformed by a class trip to see the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo perform, went west to train with Lester Horton, who created America's first racially integrated professional dance company. Learning to run that company after Horton died helped Ailey strike out on his own, while his repertoire was informed by Horton's linear technique, the language of jazz and ballet, gospel music from Ailey's own Baptist childhood, and the Caribbean-based choreography of Chicago's Katherine Dunham, whose style Ailey admired.
On opening night of the now-middle-aged company's Bay Area run, those influences asserted themselves in Ailey's signature work, Revelations, even though the company has experienced so much turnover in the last couple of years that many of its dancers, some quite young, never even met the man, who died in 1989. As much a visual as a choreographic pleasure, the company made a vivid impression, with bold theatrical staging and breathtaking costumes.
Geoffrey Holder's dreamlike program opener The Prodigal Prince unfolded ceremonially against a starry sky and rows of candles. Matthew Rushing brought a supple physicality to the role of Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, a voodoo priest transported to Africa after the goddess Erzulie and St. John the Baptist come to him in a vision. The piece, laden with Catholic and voodoo imagery and set to a heavily percussive score, opens with a stately procession of women in billowy white skirts, and segues into a feverish ritual with the arrival of the goddess and the saint.
It's here that the piece really takes flight, metaphorically and otherwise. Rushing's undulating torso and crisply articulated jumps and landings are set against a lavishly colorful backdrop of women in hand-printed skirts and veils -- their flurry of flexed-foot kicks, fluttery gestures, and rhythmically swaying hips are a delight. Better still are the men who fly out from an upstage diagonal in a dervishlike whirl of barrel turns, their bright orange tunics flashing like gems. Holder created the piece in 1968, but it still looks fresh.
Love Letters is as austere as Prodigal Prince is rich. The French choreographer Redha takes modernity to extremes in this sinuous tangle of twosomes and threesomes, in which the men wear dramatic black paneled robes, and the metallic clanging of German industrial band EinstYrzende Neubauten collides mid-tape loop with the amplified pulsing of a human heart and the melancholy classicism of Arvo Part's "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten." Romantic partners become sparring partners as recriminating looks are exchanged and a lover's gentle cradling turns to violent rocking. Though Redha could be accused of taking himself a little too seriously, the imagery is striking nonetheless, particularly during a sequence when a flash bulb goes off and the company explodes into movement, and at the end, when a woman hemmed in by four onstage spotlights is stripped nearly bare.
Revelations closed the evening on an up note, as it's meant to. Though the company performs the piece nearly every show (and some people come just to see it again), there are still surprises to be found, and moments that linger in the memory: In this case, it was "Pilgrim of Sorrow" 's prayerful poses and the dancers' arms arced as if in flight. Uri Sands, Richard Whitter, and Troy O'Neill Power knifed cleanly through "Sinner Man" 's coupe jete turns. And Dudley Williams, who joined the company in 1964, brought a quiet dignity (and welcome maturity) to "I Wanna Be Ready."
-- Heather Wisner
This Is a Size 6 and This Is Your Dog
Lillian. Written and performed by David Cale. Directed by Joe Mantello. At the Magic Theater, Building D, Third Floor, Fort Mason, through Feb. 28. Call 441-8822.
This Is a Size 6 ... and This Is Your Head. By Carlos Alazraqui with Ann Slichter. Directed by Maria O'Brien. Performed by Alazraqui. Produced by Even Brandstein and Maria O'Brien at the Bannam Place Theater, 50A Bannam, through March 7. Call 281-0216.
When David Cale started to write Lillian in the mid-'90s, people said the idea was boring.
"For a man to play a woman -- not in drag -- for a solo show seemed not a very marketable idea," Cale said in an interview before a run last year at Chicago's Goodman Theater. But his heroine's unmarketable blandness is the best thing about her. Lillian is a cautious, middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman, with a subtle sense of humor that takes time to warm up, who has a sexual adventure when her husband leaves town. Cale plays her with so much sensitivity, in such a perfectly rendered London accent, that it's sometimes hard to remember he's American. With no costumes or props (except for "late-blooming" chrysanthemums, Lillian's favorite flower), he creates and inhabits a psychological space not his own -- just the kind of thing we like to encourage in solo performers. It's made all the more surprising by the fact that Cale denies modeling Lillian on anyone. "I just heard her," he said in Chicago. "I just started telling this story in this voice."
When her husband leaves for a job on an oil platform, Lillian goes to bed with a 20-year-old named Jimmy who works in a local grocery store. She's in her mid-30s; Jimmy is dangerous-seeming, wears a leather jacket -- "The kind of person I'd always wanted when I was his age." Sex with him is underwhelming, but the "Jimmy thing" lingers in Lillian's mind and helps to wreck her marriage. Five years later they meet again in Brighton, where Jimmy's been transformed into a coffee-abstaining vegetarian by his new and efficient wife. They eat in a health-food shop with "a lot of attitude and no pastry," and Jimmy realizes he's miserable. Their old affair is rekindled into a relationship, and Lillian, against her friends' advice, devotes herself to this shiftless kid. "You see," she says, "I've been wearing the 'Sad Story in the Making' tag around my neck for a long time. But I'm taking it off now."
Balding and lanky, Cale sits on a stool with his face in a pool of light, pretending to address the audience the way a housewife might talk to a neighbor. The illusion is total as Lillian's voice winds around the events of her life, the strange convolutions of a fate that unfolds after she decides to do something from her own motivations. Coincidence and fate mingle closely; the plot isn't linear or clean, and Lillian seems almost superstitious about the twists in her past. Her story has been told before in plenty of different forms, but Cale shows enough affection for her to make it fresh. And if the story is sad, by the end, it's also quietly hilarious, and Lillian comes out of it well because she's managed to make it her own.
A few moments shot with sudden bad music mar the plain face of the performance, and sometimes Lillian's yarn grows slack and meandering, even downright slow. But Cale's attention to character more than saves the show. At the end Lillian tells a terrible joke about a snail, rocks with laughter, and says, "I think that's so delightful." Well, it isn't and it is, which is the whole point of Lillian.
At the other end of the sensitivity scale in current solo performance is Carlos Alazraqui, a local-grown actor who's made a living as a voice-over artist and comedian: He's the voice of the Taco Bell Chihuahua. This Is a Size 6 ... and This Is Your Head is a crass but funny series of sketches that includes a long routine about that damn dog. It's comedy for the masses in a damp North Beach basement room, a space that holds less than a hundred people. Alazraqui happens to be a good actor, but he's sometimes clumsy, so the show comes off as ordinary high-energy comedy, the sort of material that seems out of place in a bohemian room like the Bannam Place Theater -- that belongs, like the Chihuahua, on TV.
The title's strange. I expected a skit about a crazed man in a hat shop, yelling about the size of a customer's head. Not quite: Alazraqui gives us a shoe salesman, yelling about the size of a customer's foot. After a riff on being a fully assimilated Argentine-American at Concord High, Alazraqui dips into a manic routine about "Latin Man," jut-chested and proud, and imagines an Argentine shoe-dog, Javier, who's trying to make it as an actor. Javier tells a co-worker in fast, inflected English about his devotion to craft. When his acting teacher criticizes him for saying "eStella" instead of "Stella" in an otherwise flawless characterization of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, the lapse mortifies Javier so much that, in a self-flagellating fugue state, he heads into the city, only to wake up in a zoo facing a 627-pound gorilla (also nicely evoked) that throws shit in his face. On and on Alazraqui goes, from riff to riff, always vivid, always milking the audience for laughs.
But why not "foot" in the title, instead of "head"? Never clarified.
There are other small lapses. Alazraqui tells about punching an ATM in Hawaii and getting arrested by a Samoan cop -- who speaks a Jamaican-sounding pidgin. And after an intensely funny, vein-popping speech by a Scottish soccer coach, Alazraqui starts to step-dance. Why the sudden lurch across the Irish Sea? Never clarified. He makes a Michael Flatley joke to acknowledge the shift, but his excursion into Ireland goes nowhere.
These are script flaws that Alazraqui indulges, probably, to fill his show with voices. Size 6 is a comedy-routine showcase for his talent with impressions. Some of the funniest material turns his family into stage cartoons, especially in a skit about his mom's reaction to the Taco Bell commercials. Alazraqui shows his frantic Argentine mother watching TV for five hours, waiting for the dog; when it finally comes on she can't work the VCR. "I get so pissed off I even call the two Taco Bells near my house," she tells him, but the stoned teenagers who work there don't know what she's talking about.
Because of his Taco Bell contract, Alazraqui can't discuss the Chihuahua in any substantial way, so he can't answer criticism about the "taco revolution" ads that some activists think are offensive. But it has to be said that Alazraqui's strength onstage is his willingness to offend. The problem with his show is not the cartoonish treatment he applies to everyone from his mom to a Midwestern health-club clerk, or the long and macabre sketch about a sky diver who throws his dead brother out of a plane, or the raunchy riff on a Frenchman who offers an American his wife -- these things give the show a manic, hilarious energy. Alazraqui's problem is that his material evaporates quickly, like any volatile chemical. Loud, high-profile, brassy -- Alazraqui's show is everything Lillian isn't, with a healthy self-ironic perspective on the Chihuahua gig; but as soon as you leave the theater his sketches fade from the mind.
-- Michael Scott Moore