BERKELEY, CALIF. — THE familiar strains of Gershwin's ``Rhapsody in Blue'' are heard as the curtain rises on a long line of dancers, center stage. A man with his back to the audience stands at the front of the line, which suddenly peels off, couple by couple, the girls nearly throwing themselves into the arms of the men, their bodies stretching into a horizontal high over the stage floor. As they are whisked offstage in the arms of their partners, the quiet stage reveals a woman standing at the back of the line, facing the man. Nothing but space stands between them.
That's the way it was when Lar Lubovitch's dance ``Rhapsody in Blue'' premi`ered in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall some time ago, performed by the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company as the culmination of their 20th anniversary celebration. Mr. Lubovitch was originally commissioned to do this work for the opening night of the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival, in April 1988.
Lubovitch says of his choice of Gershwin music for his new work: ```Rhapsody in Blue' is quintessentially American.... I have taken my own way of moving, which I have developed over a period of years, to make a comment on the jazz popular idiom - not copying it, but integrating it. I wanted to infuse a serious piece of dance with popular movement idioms.''
The Berkeley performance was the only one scheduled in the United States, until the company regains the rights from New York City Ballet after one year.
``It's more a ballet than anything I've ever choreographed,'' says Lubovitch. In structure, ``Rhapsody in Blue'' follows the typical layout of a ballet, focusing on a lead couple interacting with a corps.
Although flat jazz shoes that lace up the calf are worn by the girls, they appear to be in pointe shoes, so balletic is their style.
Why did this come about? ``The influence of being in the house of Balanchine,'' Lubovitch replied. ``Those dancers weren't going to move my way exactly; and I wasn't going to choreograph in their style exactly.'' This is not the first time Lubovitch has choreographed for companies other than his own, but that was more ``in the distant past.'' Now he prefers to do works for his own dancers, creating an average of two new pieces a year.
Currently, his choreography is based on a response to music, in such works as ``Concerto Six Twenty-Two,'' although he has also choreographed dramatic dances and story ballets. His choreography cannot be typed: moments of it look like ballet, others look astoundingly contemporary.
``I had very eclectic training. I never danced in any big company and I always saw great choreography from a distance, watching in the audience,'' Lubovitch explained. ``So I was never indoctrinated into a style. A lot of my choreography is based on the way I move.''
Lubovitch was not exposed to dance until college. ``Dance combined the two things I did best: art and gymnastics.''
After training at Juilliard, Lubovitch says, ``I decided to glean from my childhood - a time of self-discovery, when the movement was untainted. I always danced as a child, and I had a lot of movement vocabulary without knowing it.''
This may explain why his choreography is hard to categorize or even to explain. Certainly it is uplifting. As Lubovitch puts it: ``I want to evoke the highest emotions in people, not the lowest. I hope it moves people physically in their seats at a performance. That they become involved; that it touches them kinesthetically.''
Certain movement themes appear in his dances - circular arms; teamwork, shown in touching, cooperating, helping; swirls with arms and body; a ``fall and recovery'' forward port de bras, returning with the head thrown back; and what he refers to as ``cascading,'' in which the dancers peel off from a line in rapid succession like dominoes. But there is not one type of look to Lubovitch.
He is also influenced by the dancers themselves: ``I enjoy seeing certain people dancing. I'm motivated to make up steps to see them move.'' He also choreographs by sitting down and describing a movement, then watching how the dancers interpret that explanation. Therefore, his work to some extent bears the stamp of individuals who make up his company at any given time. Many dances are modified or dropped from the repertory when certain dancers leave.
But this is not of great import to Lubovitch, who - similar to Balanchine in this regard - is focused only on his next piece. ``I'm more interested in the present time, in the drama of the movement and the way that movement evokes sensations and elicits emotions without needing to tell stories.''
This past winter marked one of the two intensive rehearsal periods per year in which he choreographs. Lubovitch is planning to premi`ere a new work - performed in silence, without music - during the company's two-week season mid-September, in New York.
This season is arriving on the heels of an unusual touring schedule for the Lubovitch company: Hong Kong, France, and Canada; Japan in March and April; a US tour through June; and Italy in July. And it's not just the anniversary season which brought about so many engagements. As he puts it, ``Dance is an obsession. Everything I do in life has to do with dancing. My dances are dictated by a very strong passion. It is a passion for existence, for improving existence, for pointing out the highest manifestation of humanity. I want to provoke something positive.''