Satire has been a pervasive streak in Eliot Feld's ballets, yet he seems too high-strung to be so interested in something as benign as old-time theatrical conventions. In fact, though, he's made a number of send-ups on showbiz styles. And he's just made another one for the Feld Ballet's season at the Joyce Theater , which runs through Oct. 24.
The new dance is ''Straw Hearts,'' set to the music of turn-of-the-century composers like Henry Fillmore, Herbert L. Clarke, Jean Baptise Arban, and a few others you've probably never heard of either.
If the composers don't ring bells, the content of Feld's dance certainly does. ''Straw Hearts'' is all about straw hats and the easy-going style of the men who wore those hats. It's about sweethearts with parasols, and the elusive maid who remains that to her ardent pursuer.
Most of all, ''Straw Hearts'' is a vehicle for a first-rate character dancer newly recruited to the Feld Ballet. His name is Gianfranco Paoluzi, and he plays the woebegone suitor to the elusive dream girl.
At the heart of the ballet is Feld's conception and Paoluzi's realization of a Pierrot character type - specifically, the type personified by Charlie Chaplin. In unusually long solos, he does a lovely impression of the characteristics we know so well - the comic yet elegent dog trot, the persnickety attention to detail, the self-effacing yet determined personality.
Feld wittily translates this quality into an duet for the man and his ladylove. He uses the hook of his cane to hook the woman to his side - now catching her, then spinning her away and retrieving her as his cane catches her elbow. Boy doesn't get girl in this whimsically sad ballet, but boy triumphs anyway. He's the wittiest and - as his solos prove - the best dancer of the group, too.
Paoluzi's finely etched delicacy is truly marvelous, yet perhaps Feld was too smitten by his dancer's talents. ''Straw Hearts'' presses the characterization and the jokes to such an extent that it becomes as heavy as the Chaplin figure is light. There's too much repetition of imagery and not enough choreographic development of the main idea.
This has been a problem in much of Feld's recent work, but sometimes repetition is part of the message. ''Over the Pavement,'' which Feld made earlier in the year, benefits from heavy-handedness. Seen again during the current season, this exploration into the sardonic music of Charles Ives derives much of its brutal power from sheer insistency.
Seven thuggish outcasts make the same frenetic, punching gestures over and over and over again - and get nowhere. Precisely because of the men's doggedness does ''Over the Pavements'' hit home. Unlike ''Straw Hearts,'' for example, ''Over the Pavements'' is about real despair. That it hits you with about two tons of force makes sense.
After its season at the Joyce Theater, the Feld Ballet performs in Williamsburg, Va., Oct. 25-27; Blacksburg, Va., Oct. 28-30; Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., Nov. 2 and 3; and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nov. 5-7.