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Belles Lettres

"Lettres d'Amour" is the striking, titillating highlight of the new Alvin Ailey season.

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Briana Reed and Matthew Rushing in Geoffrey Holder's Prodigal Prince.  

With Lettres D'amour (Love Letters), Redha -- a North African-French choreographer who uses just the one name -- has given the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (at the City Center through January 3) its most striking acquisition of the past decade at least. The piece is glorious trash -- movement theater that's all stunning surface effect -- comprising eroticism with a hefty element of S&M, mysticism with a penchant for times and places not our own, and a ceaseless stream of images that might be provocative photos for the glossies given the fluid continuity of film. It isn't dance, although it does require the athleticism, the sleek anatomy, and the mute, forceful stage presence of dancers. Just as one might expect, the Ailey performers, big on gorgeousness and dramatic self-projection, are fabulous in it.

Nearly all of the work's moving tableaux are in-your-face titillating, and the p.c. police will no doubt be dismayed by the generous measure of female submissiveness and male domination. (Redha needs to catch up with latter-day pornography.) The penultimate scene, in which a single woman finds sexual ecstasy alone, bathing in the embrace of a quartet of flood lights, provides a deft climax to the theme of narcissism that runs through the proceedings. Surprisingly, apart from the opening duet for two very tough guys, Redha's a little feeble on same-sex relations; you'd think this possibility for provocation would fit right in with his aesthetic. The man's chief skill as a choreographer is, in group scenes, to keep a multitude of things happening onstage and maintain a pictorial coherence without lapsing into the banalities of Geometry 101. Apart from this Tharpian gift, Redha is essentially a masterly showman; in no way could you call him a dance-maker.

The stark setting of Lettres d'Amour is a black-curtained box with a white floor, illuminated only to a sinister gloom. Its drifting fogs are captured in cross-shafts of cool light with a faint sulfurous tinge. The Story of O costumes, by the choreographer himself, are (of course) black -- the blacks of velvet and leather. The men repeatedly throw off monklike cloaks to reveal their to-die-for musculature. The women's clinging, floor-length gowns are slashed from the ankle up to the crotch, where they reveal modesty panels executed in soft folds of noirish lace. As its design element -- so central to the piece -- suggests, Lettres d'Amour is all style, no matter, much like today's life in the fast lane. It's a work that has gleefully sold its soul to the devil.

Interestingly, one of the season's several revivals also centers on costume: a new production of Geoffrey Holder's 1968 Prodigal Prince. The work purports to be a kind of biography in dance of the primitive painter Hector Hyppolite, who was deeply involved with Voudoun, the exotic religion of his native Haiti. As is typical with Holder's ventures, the choreography, instantly forgettable, is an excuse for creating wildly imaginative costumes that -- this is the hard part -- are even more magnificent in motion than at rest.

Family members choreographed the other works new this season. Judith Jamison, the Ailey's forceful artistic director, offered the semi-autobiographical Echo: Far From Home, which attempts unsuccessfully to tie the plight of a black child aspiring to study classical ballet to the African-American sense of being cruelly torn from a culturally rich ancestral home. Though the scenario is murky, several of the main characters are affectingly portrayed. Together and singly, Uri Sands as the father and Renee Robinson as the mother achieve a stirring human resonance. Company members Lisa Johnson and Troy O'Neil Powell weighed in with brief quartets, Restricted and Ascension, respectively. Johnson had enough emotional material for an hourlong excursion and doesn't yet have the skill to make relationships clear in dance terms. Powell created a more viable piece by attempting a small subject -- let's call it flirtation -- and releasing an ebullient sense of humor. Neither work is substantial, but one can hardly reproach the Ailey for giving a chance to its own.


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