Well-Aged Ailey Offers Visual Feast
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Directed by Judith Jamison. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus, through Feb. 28. Call (510) 642-9988.

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."

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