Slowly but surely the Joffrey Ballet is finding a new path. One of America's three major ballet companies, the Joffrey is moving away from strictly classical choreography and is instead featuring dances that require eclectic technique and dramatic presence.
In the old days, this style was called demi-character, and although nobody could define the term, everybody knew what it meant. These days the term is antiquated, but who cares? On the Joffrey, it looks good.
In fact, the Joffrey dancers have never looked better than in two company premieres that began a season at the City Center that lasts through Nov. 13. Although ''Dream Dances'' by Jiri Kylian is choreographically medicocre, the large cast responds to its blend of ballet and folk dance with folkloric charm. They beguile the audience with gentle dips and sways and bittersweet vignettes of love. Kylian's rather modest achievement is given important gifts of conviction and freshness.
Such dancers as Denise Jackson, who seemed to be suffocating in ballerina parts, and Charlene Gehm, who was getting a bit oozy in the romantic repertory, find liberation in the easygoing mood of ''Dream Dances.''
Yet ''Dream Dances'' is just too tepid. Yes, the dancers are lovely in it; yes, its folksy lyricism is attractive. But each dance in this suite of dances cancels out its neighbor.
The suite format demands either contrast or cumulative power to work. ''Dream Dances'' offers neither. It begins when the music begins and ends when the music runs out. Period. Yet the music is the most interesting part. The folk songs orchestrated by Luciano Berio have just the right complexity of harmony and color that one expects from so important a composer.
William Forsythe's ''Love Songs'' is the opposite of ''Dream Dances.'' It means to shock with violence and a no-holds-barred attitude toward low life. The biggest shock, however, is discovering how marvelously tempestuous and naughty the Joffrey dancers can behave. You might not approve of people slugging each other in the groin - all as a result of disappointed hearts and, one surmises, doped-up heads - but you can admire the dancers' abandon. With long manes thrashing and heels angrily boring holes into the floor, the Joffrey women have never looked more animated.
For all its outright violence and ugliness, however, ''Love Songs'' should be taken about as seriously as a Mickey Spillane novel. It's just as bad as one - and just as good. When the ballet was first done in Los Angeles last spring, audiences were reportedly upset by Forsythe's vision of romance.
Yet there's an outlandish theatricality, a blatancy of purpose. Simple structure is partly responsible for the ballet's impact. A mere series of long solos, each set to an Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick ballad, ''Love Songs'' is set up to give each dancer ample space and time in which to go really berserk. Each of the ladies vents her fury differently. One pretends disdain for men but can't help falling for each guy who passes her way. Another shows her vulnerability to love but is rewarded with disdaining men. There's also a real spitfire among the group, played with consummate brawn by Beatriz Rodriguez. She , at least, puts up a good battle in the war of the sexes and at the performance I saw was rewarded by an ovation from the audience.
Forsythe lets the dancers carry on single-mindedly. There's not one mitigating note to the awfulness of their behavior. Class A pupils of the school of hard knocks, they enjoy that status. You can't exactly adore these folks, but it's easy to get a kick out of their wholeheartedness. They are so grimy that they are more caricatures than real, which is why their behavior is as amusing as it is alarming.