Under the American dream

In the long run, Richard Hamburger's success with the Dallas Theater Center will be measured by plays such as Santos & Santos. Written by Texas-born playwright Octavio Solis, Santos is a dark work that explores the underbelly of the American dream through an immigrant crime family.

Hamburger has described the work, which previews on April 27, as "muscular" and "hard-edged." He has said that he selected the play because of the intensely visceral nature of Solis' language.

Santos is the challenging piece by an emerging writer that Hamburger hopes will become the cornerstone of his season. (Making DTC an idea workshop for edgy, poetic young playwrights is part of Hamburger's dream; sprinkling their raw, sinewy works among New York imports is his reality.)

Solis recently spent a break discussing his newest work. The playwright was in the throes of final rehearsals at the Arts District Theater, DTC's alternative space.

"The rehearsal process is going beautifully," Solis said. "We've got a nice ensemble going.

"This is a very economical, very spare, piece," he added. "It's all about the language, and different than a lot of the plays they're accustomed too."

The play turns on an idealistic defense lawyer, Tommy Santos, who returns to his brothers' firm in El Paso only to find they are involved in drug-running and racketeering. Santos is inspired by the true crime story of Texas' Chagra family--which ordered the murder of a federal judge in 1979.

"I wanted to tell a story that was some sort of vessel for my own ambiguous feelings about myself," he said. "Why I feel totally American, and less than that at the same time.

"I wanted to talk about how to be American, you betray your immigrant past. Children of immigrants are so seduced by all things American. They walk the walk and talk the talk...I decided to talk about that in the milieu of a crime family, since crime is a terrific American institution."

Solis, the son of Mexican immigrants who settled in El Paso, has had his work performed at the Deep Ellum Theater Garage in Dallas, INTAR in New York, the Latino Chicago Theater Co., and the San Diego Repertory Theatre, among other venues. As a struggling playwright, the former Big D resident has worked at the Dallas Theater Center, the Arts Magnet High School, and the University of Texas at Dallas.

These days Solis lives and works in the Bay area with his wife and infant daughter. Having worked at the Dallas Theater Center as a graduate student in "indentured servitude," Solis said he still doesn't feel like he's arrived. But he hopes his work will help the audience see the immigrant experience in a new light. "Before I die, promise to betray me," one of his characters says in Santos.

For the immigrant's child to succeed, Solis said, "He must betray his past. It's insidious, unwitting and inevitable."

I decided to take my 76-year-old mother to see New Dances at the MAC in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. She's usually game for any performance, new and hip, as long as she doesn't have to endure a lot of primal screaming.

Still, maybe I had a different set of expectations than usual; perhaps I was looking for something more aesthetic, less deconstructionist, not quite as post-postmodern. Certainly I was hoping for some dances that were pretty, dancerly. Even beautiful.

I got what I wanted, for a few fleeting moments. But first I had to endure the kind of work that gives modern dance a bad name.

The first short dance, called Choir Practice, seemed endless. Two lovely women with chiseled legs, their sternums showing through translucent skin, sat in their chairs repeating obsessive-compulsive movements that seemed post-industrial in nature, like they were pieces of some automated assembly line. (The piece was performed by Carolyn Pavlik and Llory Wilson, who co-choreographed the piece with Rachel Brumer.)

As they moved mostly their upper bodies in their chairs, Pavlik and Wilson gasped for breath harshly. Each new movement brought a new theatrical gasp. Their gasping was so contagious I soon felt as if I were being suffocated. I wondered how my mother was doing but was afraid to look. I began to daydream about tubercular sanitariums at the turn of the century. I thought of rereading Thomas Mann.

Then I became angry. The people who like this piece are steeped in knowledge of dance and performance art. They titter at the very small jokes set in the choreography, and the self-referential nature of the dance. I think there was a time when I would've liked this dance. But I am too old for small, derivative experiments and a text with oblique associations. ("I chew on thoughts. I taste barnacles.")

I looked at these women's herculean calves and I knew they could dance. They were beautiful, and I wanted them to jump out of their chairs and spin and dance and melt their torsos and jump athletically for me.

My mother, on the other hand, quite liked the piece.
"I thought they were in a car accident, and then hovering above it," she said.

"Huh?" I replied.
Later, in another dance called Rain, Pavlik and Wilson did dance for me the way I wanted them to. They were silk, they were sex, they were raindrops on a windshield running into each other. They were dancerly, animal-like, transcendent. They were angels and they were lovers. I could've watched the slithering, sensual beauty of Rain for an hour and a half, instead of the usual post-modern fare that was doled out.

The last time I saw Kraig Patterson dance, he was the cross-dresser sur la pointe in Mark Morris' The Hard Nut, an irreverent take on The Nutcracker. Patterson played the French maid with the little black dress and white frilly apron. His long, thin legs bourreed in parallel position as he served the guests at the Christmas party.

Patterson's skills as a comic dancer--a rare feat in modern dance--are in evidence in his two pieces, Flys and Boils, as is his penchant for showing off his butt. In Boils, he uses Max Reger's Fantasie Yber Bach, Op. 46 to help create a Boris Karloff, silent-film inspired atmosphere piece. Patterson's small dances are lots of fun but lightweight.

To say these choreographers are inspired by Mark Morris--most of them danced with him at one time or another--may be somewhat true. And while each displays a talent for making movement, none of the choreographers on this program approach Morris in his ability to integrate comedy, sensuality, musicality, and farce.

I attended "New Dances" mostly to see Holly Williams' premiere of Siroco. Williams, a Dallas dancer and choreographer, also danced with Morris, and is now a heavyweight in the Dallas dance community. Her piece, performed to Vivaldi, was lovely--the movement was gracious, open, yielding, and sometimes amusing. But the piece was oddly safe in tone. Even when the dancers are apparently blown by a maelstrom, they move gingerly, without risk. As dancerly and structurally pleasing as the piece was, it sometimes bordered on tedium.

But my mother quite liked it.