A small-scale, jokey dance from the Royal Ballet's Frederick Ashton

When the Royal Ballet touched down recently at the Metropolitan Opera for its short run - part of the ''Britain Salutes New York'' festivities - audience reception on opening night turned the event into ''New York Salutes Britain.''

There was special applause during the first entrances of Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, who captured New Yorkers' hearts in the 1960s and are still treasured here. And when Britain's greatest choreographer, Frederick Ashton, came on for a bow, he received an ovation to which he responded with equal enthusiasm, blowing kisses and basking in an adoration he doesn't receive at home from the more reserved British.

The bow was occasioned by the world premiere of ''Varii Capricci,'' which Ashton made for the New York visit. It's a small-scale, jokey ballet about hipsters lounging around a swimming pool. The major joke is that Ashton made it in the first place, since he's usually not topical. But the joke that holds it all up is Ashton's use of Dowell. In ''Varii Capricci'' the danseur noble par excellence plays the chief hipster.

Does he have fun! All decked out in an Elvis hairdo, tight leather pants, and sunglasses as shiny as neon lights, the prince-turned-punk sidles and slithers and glares with consummate deadpan timing. Watch his hand casually fluff up his locks between fast pirouettes or slip in a slight roll of the hips while dancing with the terribly chic Miss Sibley. Known for his flashing eyes, Dowell here fastens them on the audience with an intensity hilariously manic.

Ashton was able to bank on New Yorkers' knowledge of Dowell's typical presence. ''Varii Capricci'' got a lot of laughs, not so much for Ashton's wit as for the amusement of seeing Dowell switch persona on us. One wonders how this inside joke will fare with audiences unfamiliar with Dowell - such as in China, where the Royal Ballet visits next.

The decor, on the other hand, by the currently fashionable painter David Hockney, is sure to draw admiring gasps everywhere. Depicting the poolside garden of, one assumes, a movie magnate, the set is a blaze of color reminiscent of Matisse and Bakst. In fact, however, the decor is modeled after the Mediterranean garden of William Walton, the composer of the ballet and a lifelong friend of Ashton. Putting the final bars of music on ''Varii Capricci'' was the last work Walton did before passing on in March.

Although ''Varii Capricci'' has become a sort of final tribute to Walton, a far more profound remembrance of a composer is Ashton's choreography of Elgar's ''Enigma Variations,'' which the Royal Ballet has brought here for the first time since 1969. This ballet depicts the interior and social life of Elgar at a moment of crisis, when he is just on the brink of fame. Within this narrative frame Ashton is also able to elucidate English manners and morals and, by sheer genius, help us understand the nature of love, friendship, memory, and aspiration.

''Enigma Variations'' is one of the great dances of the century, and if only for the opportunity of seeing it again, New York must thank the British for saluting us.

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