Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of any company. For the Joffrey Ballet, whose history has been studded with near-collapses and breathless reprieves, a silver anniversary is a downright triumph. Embarking on a season that runs until Nov. 22 at the City Center, the Joffrey celebrated its milestone year with a ''gala'' that was high on comprehensiveness and, curiously, low on high spirits.
The gala was a 31/2-hour crash course in the history of the company. Using slides and excerpts from film to supplement life renditions from the current repertory, the program swept through the early years and into a survey of the Joffrey's revivals of classics from the international repertory. The last chapter was a rundown of dances created especially for the Joffrey.
Sometimes the bits-and-pieces format has a cumulative effect. On this occasion one left the theater with a bit of this and that indelibly remembered, but with the whole - the impact of a quarter-century - oddly unsubstantiated. The most powerful moment was a film of the late Maximiliano Zomosa rehearsing the role of Death in Kurt Jooss's antiwar masterpiece, ''The Green Table.'' Not soon again is a dancer of Zomosa's potency expected, and those who saw him perform in the 1960s need not have that fact reaffirmed. To see him once again communicate the power and dignity of this great role - and in rehearsal clothes, mind you, without the help of costume and makeup - was not so much a nostalgic reminder of bygone days but a testament to dance itself and its capacity to move us like no other art form.
As fabulous as this moment was, it raised a troubling question. Is this what 25 years boils down to?
Of course not. But in an evening when it seemed that every excerpt received either too much or too little time, when the audience seemed too unfamiliar with Joffrey history to give the old-timers proper recognition, and when the dancers themselves were more jittery than exuberant, the Joffrey retrospective seemed a sparse canvas indeed.
A fairer perspective was gained on the first of the regular repertory evenings, which turned out to be more exciting too. First of all, the dancers were back to their usual selves, endowing the sparkling dances with all the sparkle that had been missing in the gala. Second, a return to normal programming brought forth a company premiere of Jiri Kylian's most successful ballet to date, ''Transfigured Night.''
Set to Arnold Schonberg's luscious score of the same name, ''Transfigured Night'' is a sensitive interpretation of the music, always conveying both its beauty and pain.
Kylian has an impressive way of transmuting sensuous shapes into images of sadness and even violence, and then working the transformation in reverse. The problem with this ballet, and with so much European dance in general, is that musical substance is never enough. There's always a narrative theme. It always deals with big issues, like life and death. And the issues are always obscure yet obstrusive. ''Transfigured Night'' is fascinating to look at. As to what it means, I haven't the foggiest.