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Pushing to th Edge

In introducing an unorthodox, physically demanding piece by Redha, the Alvin Ailey troupe sets off quite a buzz in the dance world.

March 03, 1999|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater begins its five-day run in Los Angeles tonight, the company will serve up a controversial piece one critic has called its "most striking acquisition" in a decade.

The new commission, "Lettres d'Amour," was choreographed by Redha, a French-born Algerian Italian choreographer and onetime "Soul Train" dancer who traded acting for ballet at age 22. A physically demanding exploration of relationships and loneliness, it features no-holds-barred eroticism, unorthodox movement and stark intensity that some might say is at odds with the typical exuberance of the Ailey troupe.

"I was a wild card," said Redha, who jettisoned his last name, Benteifour, years ago. "And [Ailey artistic director] Judith Jamison was great to play the game. She felt it was important for the company to show another aspect of itself, something very contemporary with a different vocabulary."

Newsday's Sylviane Gold credits Jamison with taking the troupe's repertory in an unlikely direction, one more typical of an "avant-garde European company." Jamison disagrees. Her dancers are capable of wearing many cloaks, she maintains. Still, Redha's piece--a mix of ballet, modern, jazz and pop--fits nicely with her agenda: adapting the repertory to new generations of performers and pushing them beyond what they think they can do.

"Redha is on the edge and trying to go further," Jamison said by phone from New York. "His work incorporates all our technique plus dance you see out there on the street. He does the lighting, the sets, the costumes--filling the eye onstage. He's very theatrical, which works well for us: the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater."

Theatricality comes naturally to the 44-year-old choreographer. His mother, an Italian stage actress, married an Algerian soccer star who played for France in the 1954 World Cup. In 1958, the Benteifours moved from Europe to North Africa, where Redha was raised. When his father died in a car accident in 1970, the family relocated to Paris.

A lover of music and movies, Redha, at 17, decided to be an actor. Five years later, at an audition, he lied when asked if he knew how to dance. He attended one class and became a convert. "I missed the body in acting--I felt like it wanted to say something," he said in a phone interview from his Paris home. "In dance, you can't cheat or lie--you either make three pirouettes or you don't do it. Acting is so subjective . . . so much talk."

That friends told him he was insane to take up dance in his 20s only increased Redha's drive. To his amazement, he was accepted into a ballet school in Cannes run by American-born ballerina Rosella Hightower. One instructor suggested he broaden his scope by studying in the States and, in 1975, he headed for Los Angeles, where the teacher had contacts and where he could indulge his love of the sea. Arriving with no English and only $1,000, he stayed for five years.

Redha studied ballet with Stanley Holden, pop and street dance with Michael Peters (Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and "Beat It" choreographer) and jazz with Claude Thompson. He also danced in commercials, on a Diana Ross special and as a regular on the TV show "Soul Train." "It was like Disneyland for a ballet dancer from Europe," he recalls. "Truly heaven for me."

Redha returned to France to break into choreography and to share what he had learned. In 1983, some of his friends were invited to perform at a local theater and, quite by accident, a troupe was born. The Parisian-based Compagnie Redha is still touring today. Redha has created more than a dozen pieces for it and for companies in Cuba, the Philippines and Amsterdam. Working in film (Roman Polanski's "Bitter Moon") and commercials for Lacoste, Citroen and Wrangler heightened his visual sense, he says.

"Redha has a different way of seeing things," says Masazumi Chaya, Ailey associate artistic director. "He's created a new way of moving, unusual combinations, which he uses to reflect life. Watching 'Lettres' is like watching a movie--a series of fast-moving images."

Redha's breakthrough came in 1991 when he entered the first International Choreography Competition in Tokyo and was unanimously awarded the gold medal. One of the 22 judges was Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet who, two years later, commissioned "La Pavane Rouge"--Redha's American choreographic debut.

The ritualistic dance, with women throwing themselves on the floor and men in bustles, was enthusiastically received by the sellout crowd and, with some reservations, embraced by the critics. Chaya was one of its fans and brought Redha to the attention of Jamison.

Redha created "Lettres," which portrays six couples in a black-curtained box, in 50 hours, working in the studio with the Ailey troupe. The dance, which had its world premiere in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September, has been characterized as an angst-ridden battle of the sexes. That misses the point, Redha says.

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