The King and I

Allison Orr's choreographic tribute to Elvis Presley, The King and I, is perceptive, inventive, and surprisingly engaging

Arts Review

The King and I

Arts on Real, through Aug. 18

If you were consuming any kind of media in Austin the past few weeks, it would be hard not to know that Allison Orr has created a dance piece about Elvis using mostly recordings from his famous Aloha From Hawaii concert. The subject of the cover story of both this publication and the Statesman's XL ent weekly entertainment supplement, the reprised and expanded version of this popular piece – previously nominated for three Austin Critics Table awards – is big news, and rightfully so; Orr's work is perceptive, inventive, and surprisingly engaging.

The life of Elvis Aaron Presley, his rise and sordid downfall, is familiar to everyone. The lessons about sudden fame, the inexplicable frenzy that has surrounded him since his death, the unique place he holds in our culture, from nostalgia to the compulsive desire to emulate and embody by impersonation, all of this would seem to have been explored to the point of total oversaturation. What could anyone possibly have left to say about Elvis?

Orr answers this difficult question in such a way that not only does her piece succeed as enjoyable spectacle on its own but also serves as a gratifying reminder of the nature and purpose of a work of art. The King and I has no shocking revelations, no avant-garde affectations, evinces neither condescension for nor exploitation of the populist cultural appeal of its subject. Rather, it is the satisfying and illuminating result of a smart, extremely witty woman turning her attention to a cultural icon with total sincerity. From the specific ways in which Elvis' life and her own overlap, related in charming and humorous asides during slide shows, to the manner in which thousands have communed with him, a brilliant number in which despondent figures play Elvis' saddest songs on their record players, she addresses his life, his songs, and his place in our experience as an honest participant and an insightful observer.

From the very first number, the choreography impresses. Using many of Elvis' signature moves and gestures, Orr creates a vocabulary that is at once familiar, infectious, and almost miraculously underivative. The three dancers – Orr, Ann Berman, and Theresa Hardy – are beautifully matched and come across as a natural extension of one other. Their mobile elastic limbs undulate through Orr's fluid choreography with such assurance and ease; at moments, it prompts the question as to whether they have any bones at all.

By the time the first act draws to a close and the three of them are cooking peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, intertwined like the Graces on a Grecian frieze and the Elvis impersonators, particularly an adept and winning Donnie Roberts, make their appearance, Orr has established a thoughtful and novel enough approach that the more kitschy aspects of his legend can be addressed, and it is all good fun.

The King and I is to be commended for making accessible an art form that too often runs to the esoteric and by doing so with total integrity. That Allison Orr could accomplish this with a subject as burdened by cliché as Elvis Presley is testament to the boundless potential of a thoughtful and original mind.

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The King and I, Forklift Danceworks, Allison Orr, Ann Berman, Theresa Hardy, Donnie Roberts

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