Canada's bouquet to Fred Astaire

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens - or Les Grands, as the Montreal-based group is known back home - has just performed here, giving Americans a sample of their repertory and introducing a new ballet, ''Astaire.'' The troupe now tours Canada and will be back in the United States in the fall (itinerary to be set later).

While they were here at the City Center, members of the musicians' union were protesting the company's use of canned music. ''You pay full price for a cut-rate product,'' read placards carried by picketers. Up on the stage, an undeniably living tap-dancer and singer named John Stanzel was singing and dancing his way through the songs Fred Astaire made famous in the movies.

The problem: Stanzel wasn't really singing and tap-dancing. He was going through the motions while the real voice and sound of the taps came over the loudspeakers in a prerecorded tape.

There are technical reasons for this dubbed performance, and Stanzel is such a good mimic of himself on tape that maybe he fooled half the audience - those who expect taps to sound like the din of soldiers on the march and imagine that a person can sing and dance at the same time without taking a deep breath.

Anyone who has seen Astaire knows better. He's suave and elegant - but he breathes. And being a nice sort of fellow, he doesn't bust our eardrums.

The Canadians' spectacular tribute ''Astaire,'' choreographed by Stanzel and Brydon Paige for the big ensemble numbers, is the antithesis of everything Astaire stands for. The prerecorded aspect, for instance, is just one misunderstanding among many. As soon as ''Astaire'' begins, one knows it's about honky-tonk rather than the ostensible subject. When Astaire dances, he shows us the complete person, from head to toe, the idea being that real virtuosity is not only impervious to, but is negated by, trick shots and fancy footwork.

''Astaire'' opens with a glaring spotlight thrown on Stanzel's legs, which obscures the rest of him. The device is as hack and gaudy as they come, and it sets the standard for the rest of the ballet.

Fortunately, ''Astaire'' is not standard fare for Les Grands. Its repertory includes masterpieces by George Balanchine and highlights works by Canadians. The signature piece is Brian Macdonald's ''Tam Ti Delan,'' which charmingly accents Quebecois culture through the songs of the French-Canadian composer Gilles Vigneault. Choreographers working in more modern modes include James Kudelka, whose ''In Paradisum'' was warmly received in Montreal, and Linda Rabin , whose ''Tellurian'' is a stimulating exercise in mass movement.

''Tellurian'' was the best-danced work on the program I saw, but given that Les Grands Ballets Canadiens calls itself a ballet company, the dancers' victory in Rabin's modern-dance piece was undermined by a sloppy performance of Balanchine's ''Concerto Barocco,'' an authentic ballet indeed. This company is Canadian and may be grand, but not when it comes to ballet.

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