New York — American Ballet Theater (ABT) is now in the springtime of its life. As has become apparent during the troupe's season at the Metropolitan Opera (until June 12), new dancers are cropping up everywhere. Faces that had been vaguely familiar in the ensemble are now featured prominently.
More dancers have had a crack at big roles than ever before. Soloists of promise have suddenly found their periods of apprenticeship come due; they've been cast in the repertory's most challenging roles.
Some debuts have been sensational, such as Susan Jaffe's Swan Queen in ''Swan Lake.'' As happens in a good-old corny movie, ''Swan Lake'' was hers from the first arabesque. Other debuts, such as Cheryl Yeager's and Peter Fonseca's in Balanchine's exacting ''Theme and Variations,'' have been less perfect but no less momentous. Some dancers have made smaller, but consistently elegant, splashes.
There have been a few mistakes -- and Antony Tudor's dramatic nuances seem wholly out of reach of ABT these days. But all in all, it's been a time of remarkable growth -- with new branches shooting out from the underbrush, saplings popping up wherever you look, and a healthy bloom on a seriously pruned corps de ballet.
With one element of ABT firmly pointing to a hopeful future, the company nevertheless finds itself stumped by repertory. A veritable slew of new productions was recently premiered, and just about all do no service to the dancers or to the stature of the company itself. The one exception is the company premiere of Merce Cunningham's ''Duets.''
Although Cunningham works in modern dance, the vocabulary of ''Duets'' is essentially classical. More crucial, the vocabulary is so clean and visible that it exposes dancers' technique and sense of dynamics as rigorously as a ballet by Petipa or Balanchine. It was fascinating to see 10 of ABT's most interesting soloists step into a dance tradition that is so near to the root of their own tradition but approaches the root from an unfamiliar angle. The steps may be the same, but the rhythms are unique to Cunningham.
As of this early date, ''Duets'' is scintillating, but it looks scattered on the massive Met stage. Although they move elegantly, the dancers lack the weight of repose. Their movements seem to say, ''This is what I am going to do next.'' In order for ''Duets'' to achieve its full breadth, the dancers need to say, ''This is what I am doing now.''
If only by being a work to grow into, however, ''Duets'' has the other new additions beaten by a long shot. Lynne Taylor-Corbett's ''Great Galloping Gottschalk'' rightly belongs to ABT's junior company. It's one of those pitifully thin frolic pieces. Peter Anastos' ''Claire de Lune,'' a pas de deux, tries to be a salon piece but also ends up in the slim department.
Choo San Goh's ''Configurations,'' to a piano concerto by Samuel Barber, has the earmarks of a big dramatic piece about alienation and loss of love. Yet the choreographer is too preoccupied with inventing odd steps and moving the ensemble around to delve into those themes. And then there's that chestnut, Roland Petit's ''Carmen.'' ABT simply doesn't know what to make of its flashy theatrics. Is the flash just trash, or self-conscious satire? Is it lowbrow art or highbrow show biz?
These questions should have been settled before ''Carmen'' got to the stage.