Allison Orr choreographs a new comeback special for the King
"Elvis is in everybody out there.
Everybody's got Elvis in them!"
-- Mojo Nixon, "Elvis Is Everywhere"
Allison Orr was not always in touch with her inner Elvis.
That may sound strange considering that this Austin choreographer is about to open the third incarnation of The King and I, her modern-dance tribute to His Royal Presleyness -- a tribute of such fidelity that all of the music in it is drawn from Elvis' final concert at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis and almost all of it presented in the exact order that it was performed. Still, it's true.
No baby Allison being rocked to sleep with a lullaby of "Suspicious Minds." No skipping rope on the playground to "In the Ghetto." No requests for "Don't Cry, Daddy" at the junior prom. In fact, when Orr had to high-kick to Elvis hits with the Austin High drill team, she thought his music was, well, pretty cheesy.
No, it wasn't until about eight years ago that Orr felt a hunka hunka burning love for the King ignite in her heart. That road-to-Damascus conversion took place, fittingly, inside Elvis' own home, and, like the life-changing experience of the apostle Paul, it took her totally by surprise. Orr had journeyed to Memphis with choreographer Liz Lerman, whose dance company she was affiliated with at the time, and figured that as long as she was so close to one of pop culture's major meccas, she might as well check it out. If nothing else, it ought to be "fun and kind of kitschy to see Elvis' house." So early on a rainy morning, she struck out on her own for Graceland. And it was not quite what she expected. "It's so small in scale compared to what you think a star would live in, especially now," Orr recalls. "The ceilings aren't real high. It's not a huge house."
And that simple fact, that this wasn't some mammoth mansion beyond the scale of mere mortals, that it wasn't an obscene monument by Elvis to his own standing as a musical legend, shrunk this god of rock & roll, this King, down to human size in Orr's eyes. For the first time ever, she saw him as a human, with human frailties and flaws. And as she moved among the rooms, something happened. "You're on this audio tour, and it's talking about, 'This is where Elvis sang his last song to his friends,' and I'm looking at this piano, and I'm overwhelmed with emotion," she says. "By the end, I'm crying. It's like, what the hell is going on? I was not a fan, but I was really moved. I was blown away by the humanness of Graceland. I connected to this person."
That connection got Orr listening to Elvis in a whole new way, discovering what was so great about "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "The Wonder of You" that had eluded her in her high-kicking days with the Red Jackets. And then she began reading up on his life: Priscilla Presley's Elvis and Me and Peter Guralnick's double-header on the King's rise and fall, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love, and others. And then, after Orr had found her way back to her hometown and launched her own company, Forklift Danceworks, it got this dance-maker thinking, "Maybe there's something here I could do something about."
And that's how Austin came to see The King and I for the first time. That initial version, produced for the 2004 Sharir + Bustamante Danceworks program Sex, Lies, and Fairytales, was less about Elvis than about the legions of performers who have kept the King alive in the decades since his death by donning the rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, twitching that upper lip, and belting out "Kentucky Rain" or "Devil in Disguise" or "Jailhouse Rock" in their very best imitation of his exceedingly imitable style. At this point, it was the Elvis impersonators who fascinated Orr. She was intrigued by the idea of people who were not trained as performers taking on the persona of a performer. So she did some research and looked around for Elvis impersonators on the Internet -- "They have a pretty large Web presence," Orr says with a laugh -- and called a couple of the biggest agencies in the country for Elvis impersonators, which put her in touch with one in College Station, who gave her some names of people in Austin to contact. That's how she connected with Donnie Roberts, Victor Solimine, and C.B. Lawrence, the three Elvis impersonators who performed with Orr and dancers Theresa Hardy and Karly Dillard in the Sharir + Bustamante concert.
In that 10-minute piece, Orr blended comical images (the three Elvises gliding across the stage on scooters, the three dancers being knocked down by flying footballs) with repetitions of the King's signature gestures (windmill arms, popping knees, twitching buttocks), to great effect. It went over extremely well with audiences, who laughed and cheered and tapped their feet throughout. And though it involved considerably more dancing than they were used to, the trio of Elvis impersonators had a good time, too, thankaverramuch. Maybe the only person who wasn't completely satisfied with the piece was the choreographer herself. Orr felt that this wasn't really the finished dance she'd wanted to make from this material.
"I realized that this wanted to be a longer dance and that it wasn't about impersonators. It was really more about me," she says. "There's something here that I'm trying to figure out that isn't just about putting Elvis impersonators on stage. So I scaled them back and went in a whole different direction."
That direction was back to Graceland, that is, to the place where Orr had discovered Elvis as a human being and where his experiences, his story, had connected with her so powerfully. She began to put together all that she had learned about Elvis' life and career and then look at it in relationship to her own life and career. "I think a lot about the decisions that artists have to make to live a sustainable life," Orr says. "You know, you could work all the time, but then why are you working so hard? What's the goal? Is the goal to get famous, or is the goal to make money, or what? And what sacrifices do you make along the way? You know, you don't really have a regular life. [The expanded version of The King and I] is definitely about my response to learning all about Elvis' experience as a star and how in my mind he really didn't make it. It was the system or the music industry that took advantage of or profited off this person. But it was also the bad choices that he made. There's definitely that going on in my head when I'm working on the dance: What kind of choices do you make, and what are the right kinds of choices? I'm still trying to figure that out. With his family and the way he was brought up, Elvis wasn't in a good place to have so much stuff thrown at him. He wasn't grounded.
"So after learning all that, my intention was: Could I make somebody like me, who had no connection to Elvis and really didn't want to, didn't care to, feel a connection upon leaving the show? So there's really an emotional line going through the show now that was not there when I first started. It's more about trying to make Elvis human, in a way. I guess that's what I felt when I was at Graceland, and I wanted somehow to create that for people when they come to the show."
Orr's expansion of The King and I premiered at the Elks Lodge on Dawson Road in April of 2005 -- a half-century and one month after a 20-year-old Elvis rolled up to Dessau Hall for his first-ever performance in Austin. The hourlong show, which, as noted, followed the set list for Elvis' last concert, was a full-blown choreographic celebration of all things Presley, from his music to Priscilla to fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches -- the last cooked up before our eyes (and noses!) in an elegantly amusing above-the-waist dance by Orr, Dillard, and Hardy. The four performances sold out, and the show earned a trio of Austin Critics Table Award nominations. But more importantly, this incarnation of The King and I gave its creator that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that had eluded her in the first version. "I always have on my mind that I want to make something that both my grandfather and a 9-year-old would like," Orr says, "and I think that that happened."
Having achieved that kind of success, you might imagine that Orr would be ready to walk away from the King, that her Elvis would have left the building. But the fact is she enjoys this show too much to give it up just yet. "I get to use this great material that you never get to work with in modern dance and dance to this music that I would never get to dance to and do something really fun," she enthuses. "I really like doing it. I really do like the material a lot."
And thus, The King and I is back for a three-week run just as we mark the 30th anniversary of Elvis' passing (that is, for those of you who believe that the King is indeed dead). The third edition includes a few new segments -- one celebrating Elvis and karate! -- and Elvis impersonator Donnie Roberts, who missed the Elks Lodge run, is back in the fold. Plus he'll be joined by several guest Elvis impersonators -- John Kelso! Michael Fracasso! Sara Hickman! Jim Swift! Mayor Will Wynn! -- each of whom, on the night of his or her appearance, will wear the iconic Vegas-era jumpsuit and sing a duet with Roberts. (See box for schedule of appearances.)
Then, if all goes well, next spring The King and I will be heading out on the road, following in the tire tracks of Elvis in 1955, when he crisscrossed Texas with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black in a succession of Cadillacs, playing municipal auditoriums, high school gyms, and small nightclubs in all corners of the state. In doing her research, Orr was especially interested in this early period, before the national hysteria over Elvis started and it was just the three guys -- the Blue Moon Boys, as they called themselves for a time -- racing over hundreds of miles of asphalt to gigs in backwater little Texas towns. "I have a book, Elvis in Texas," says Orr, "and it's full of anecdotal stories by people who remember Elvis coming through and how he barely made it or didn't come because his car was broken down in the middle of the road somewhere. They always had local talent open the show, and that talent had to keep playing and playing until he finally came in the door."
It left her wondering about the places the Blue Moon Boys played and how many of them might still be around 50-something years after the fact and whether they'd be interested in seeing a modern-dance tribute to Elvis. So she started looking into it and made some contacts and took off last summer with her husband and new baby girl, Genevieve, to see some of these spots for herself.
"Donnie, our Elvis impersonator -- Sweet-water had hired him to do a performance back in '05, the 50th anniversary of Elvis being there. He had a contact with the Chamber of Commerce, and he helped me get in touch with the guy at the auditorium there. And the Sweetwater people said, 'You know, in Big Spring, you should talk to so-and-so.' They all know each other. And the stepdad of a friend of mine is from Big Spring, and he gave me the phone number of the piano teacher in town, and I called her, and she said, 'Well, you know who you should talk to is the symphony director.' So it was all little calls to so-and-so, who knew so-and-so.
"We're looking at March [for the tour]. Big Spring actually has a symphony, which is kind of remarkable, and the symphony director is trying to book acts in this theatre where Elvis played, this historic auditorium where lots of famous vocalists have performed. Greenville and San Angelo and Texarkana and Sweetwater are the other communities that have operating auditoriums where Elvis played. What's exciting for me is that, like my other work, it's reaching an audience we would never reach. It's exciting to me to think that we're going to take our first tour and we're not going to San Francisco, we're not going to New York. We're going to West Texas."
Orr still has a few hurdles to get past. Getting three dancers, an Elvis impersonator, and all the production materials across the state is a little more complicated -- not to mention expensive -- than it was for Bill, Scotty, and Elvis hauling ass in a pink Caddy with a stand-up bass strapped to the roof. Orr is trying to raise funds to help minimize the costs for the smaller towns that might not have as much funding to import this kind of cultural endeavor.
But the tour will come together. After all, this is the King that we're talking about, right? His influence knows no bounds. If you need proof, know that when Allison Orr was talking to the people in Sweetwater about her show, she was told, "You know, our funeral director is an Elvis impersonator, too."
"Elvis is everywhere
Elvis is everything
Elvis is everybody
Elvis is still the king
Man o man
What I want you to see
Is that the big E's
Inside of you and me."
The King and I runs Aug. 2-18, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, at Arts on Real, 2826 Real.Special guest appearances include:
- KXAN Channel 36 reporter Jim Swift -- Thursday, Aug. 2
- Singer-songwriter Sara Hickman -- Thursday, Aug. 9
- Mayor Will Wynn -- Thursday, Aug. 16 ($50 ticket price includes postshow party with Elvis-inspired food and drink)
- Singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso -- Friday, Aug. 17
- Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso -- Saturday, Aug. 18
For more information, call 472-ARTS or visit www.forkliftdanceworks.org.