He gave American dance a gutsy, theatrical dimension. Alvin Ailey's visceral choreography, coupled with his spiritual, often mythical themes, challenged performers and nondancing collaborators alike. Now, in tribute to the late founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, his troupe performs the Bay Area premiere of Hymn. This one-act ballet, choreographed by artistic director Judith Jamison, is based on a text created from dancers' reminiscences by monologist Anna Deavere Smith (whose Fires in the Mirror sold out the Berkeley Rep in January 1994). Smith will read her libretto in person twice during the local premiere engagement: Sat, March 11, 8 pm, and Sun, March 12, 3 pm. (Smith's text will be on tape at other performances of Hymn Thurs, March 9, 8 pm, and March 19 at 3 pm). During its two-week engagement, the troupe will also perform other works, including Scissors Paper Stone, a new work by Brenda Way, artistic director of ODC/San Francisco. Hymn plays at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Dana. Tickets are $16-$32; call (510) 642-9988.

John Sullivan

Two living legends of jazz, Lionel Hampton and J.J. Johnson, make rare club appearances this week. At 85, Hampton can look back on a career in which, as a jazz vibraphonist, he was one of the earliest electric pop musicians. He also launched the careers of Betty Carter, Jimmy Scott and Illinois Jacquet, and made classic recordings with Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges and Nat King Cole. Hampton defined the vibraphone as a jazz instrument, singing and playing drums and piano, as well. More importantly, he still does all of it superbly, with enough showmanship and inspiration to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

In his own more reserved way, J.J. Johnson is just as flashy as Lionel. For the last half-century, Johnson has been the pre-eminent jazz trombonist; technically gifted, he is also a great composer and inspired improviser whose imagination always surprises his listeners. Lionel Hampton brings his big band to Kimball's East, 5800 Shellmound, Emeryville, Tues-Sun, Mar. 7-12, with shows at 8 and 10 pm. Tickets are $18-$20; call (510) 658-2555. The J.J. Johnson Quintet appears at Yoshi's, 6030 Claremont, Oakland, Wed-Sun, March 8-12, with shows at 8 and 10 pm. Tickets are $15-$18; call (510) 652-9200.

Ira Steingroot

Emerging from such Australian postpunk noise outfits as Venom P. Stinger and People With Chairs Up Their Noses, Dirty Three spouts a rare brand of semi-improv that embraces aspects of rock/folk/jazz/whatnot without inviting usage of the dreaded F-word (fusion). Dirty Three's recordings, while obnoxiously difficult to acquire, are well worth scouring the globe for: Guitarist Mick Turner, violinist Warren Ellis and percussionist Jim White serve up everything from squalling rawk to narcotic nocturnes with a gritty, transcendent abandon. The trio is touring to promote the re-release of their nigh-unobtainable Sad and Dangerous LP on CD; don't miss what some Aussie scribes have pegged as one of their nation's most enthralling live acts. Dirty Three opens for Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 Fri, March 10, 9 pm, at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell, S.F. Tickets are $7; call 885-0750. D3 also plays Mon, March 13, with S.F. Seals at Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St, S.F. Tickets are $4; call 621-4455.

Mike Rowell

They push ad-libs to the nail-biting brink, concocting whole mini-dramas and musicals without a script. True Fiction Magazine, the city's homegrown improvisational troupe, creates several short plays — each different, yet linked by characters and situations — at every perform-ance. This so-dubbed “spontaneous theater” gets a boost from a musician and a lighting technician, who join the actors in their impromptu creations. The company, which performs regularly on KALW's West Coast Live, brings its brand of improv theater (where audience members suggest plot lines and characters) to the New Conservatory Theatre, 25 Van Ness, S.F., Thurs-Sat, March 9-18, 8 pm. Tickets are $12-$15; call 824-1559.

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