Fresh paint and imagination - Feld Ballet's new home

The smell of fresh paint greeted the audience as it entered the newly renovated theater to see the Feld Ballet.

With that smell comes promise of a new home for dance in a city famously rich in dance activity, yet infamously poor in housing facilities.

Thanks to the imagination and persistence of the Feld Ballet, its backers, and all the nice, friendly banks that doled out mortgages, dance companies need not face a boom-or-bust situation in New York anymore.

With a seating capacity of 475, the new Joyce Theater is an obvious middle ground between improvised spaces, such as lofts, and theaters of opera-house capacity. Reconstructed out of an old movie house, the Joyce has all the facilities dancers need: a springy floor, space for warm-ups before performance, and proper dressing rooms.

As the Feld company puts it, the Joyce is built by dancers for dancers. And the audience benefits, too, from sharply raked seats, allowing clear sight of the stage.

Taking a quick trot through the theater during intermission, I found all but the first few rows of seats good for viewing. Those first rows would normally be used for an orchestra pit, but these days even companies that can afford renting big theaters must cut out the expense of live music.

That the Joyce Theater assumes taped music to be the wave of the future is sad but reasonable. Yet as a result of making no provisions for an orchestra pit , the stage seems unusually thrust upon the audience. There's little breathing space, as it were, between the performers and the viewers. Without that line of demarcation, some of the grace, graciousness, and mystery of theatergoing is lost. True that the curtain is the traditionally plush red velvet and that it rises in fanciful crenellations, but once it's up the stage looks a bit flat and dry.

Not so the dancers of the Feld Ballet, who have inaugurated their new theater and will hold forth until June 27. They danced the way new paint looks -- fresh, clean, and just a trifle overpowering in sparkle. Since the company hasn't danced in New York since 1978 -- holding out for a financially feasible theater - it strikes this viewer as half new. Yet it's still the same stylistically cohesive group, serving the singular voice of its director, Eliot Feld.

As evidenced by two of several new ballets to be seen during June, Feld's choreographic vision is still unique. He creates bona fide ballets without the sleek, glossy ''balletic'' airs afflicting so much of contemporary dance. While his integrity is still going strong, his methods of composition seem to be growing more and more restricted.

Both ''Circa'' and ''Play Bach'' set forth ideas and get stuck in them, as in grooves. ''Circa,'' to several pieces by Hindemith, gets so hung up on Greek vase imagery that it never develops its implied plot about a shy faun's encounter with a siren. Everything about the ballet is set up for drama, culminating in a duet for the man and woman. But all we get is a series of poses spelling bas relief -- not to mention other ballets also based on antiquity.

As in ''Circa,'' one sees more motif than dance in ''Play Bach,'' to several partitas. The idea is to reduce Bach's strict meter to gymnastic precision. It's a workout. The dancers are nimble Jacks wearing knee pads.

One can admire the infinite number of ways Feld uses the bicycle-riding motif and other sporty images. That he doesn't work these ideas to the ground is amazing. Yet his belief that choreography is all a matter of not letting go of the central image is confounding. Will a new, permanent home at the Joyce Theater loosen him up?

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