Dance - of all varieties - gains new popularity in Britain

Like light hitting a diamond, multifaceted rays from a British dance explosion are bursting out at willing audiences in theaters, the Royal Opera House, on television screens - even on ice rinks.

Every aspect of dance - classical, contemporary, jazz, tap, musical comedy - is finding new popularity in a country where dance has usually been thought of as formal ballet, hearty Scottish reels, or something that happens in Hollywood films.

Perhaps the most striking example of this renewed interest in dance was last fall's Royal Variety Show. Traditionally it consists of comedy, music, and magic. But this time Queen Elizabeth II sat through an entire evening of what host Gene Kelly called ''a tribute to dance.''

What variety in that tribute! Nonstop rhythms from polkas to ragtime, old-time quadrilles to rock-and-roll, smooth-as-whipped-cream ballet to jerky robotic dancing.

Here are some more examples of what's been happening:

* At the end of January the National Gallery will open a new 20th-century gallery with a section devoted to ballet. On display will be busts of Dame Marie Rambert, the Rambert Company founder, and Dame Ninette de Valois, the British Ballet pioneer; a drawing of Dame Alicia Markova; and photos of Robert Helpmann, Margot Fonteyn, Nadia Nerina, and the late Sir Anton Dolin.

* Another dance exhibit - this time covering the formative years of the Royal Ballet - has been on view at the Sadler's Wells Theatre during the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet's three week season there. The photographer is Gordon Anthony , who has contributed to recording British ballet history over many years.

* An evening seasoned with Russian classics celebrated the birthday of a Soviet dancer who defected and now is a teacher in London, Sulamith Messerer. It also honored the memory of John Gilpin, said to have been the finest male dancer England has produced.

In the program's new-to-London Russian extracts was a tribute to Gilpin and his place as dancer and teacher: a stunning, very brief, but very fast solo by French dancer Patrick Dupond, an etoile (star) at the Paris Opera Ballet.

* In Nottingham, England, recently, world and Olympic champion ice skaters Jane Torville and Christopher - whose names have become household words here - retained their British title. They won with a series of daring dances.

They began with a pasodoble depicting a matador and a bull in a sparkling routine with fancy footwork. Then they did some dancing that demonstrated their exceptional musical interpretation and put them in a separate league from all other competitors.

To Ravel's ''Bolero'' they flew across the ice in a series of fluid, perfectly executed movements which, the London Observer's sports critic wrote, ''could share the stage with the Royal Ballet.''

Unlike usual ice-dancing competition routines, there was no change of tempo halfway through. Emotion and excitement built to a musical climax. It was a stunning nationally televised moment in the world of dance.

* Twelfth-century disco dancers stamp and strut on the stage of the Aldwych, a West End theater, after an extended run at the newly refurbished Old Vic theater in Waterloo Road. The musical play ''Blondel,'' by Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver, tells the thin story of a minstrel who searched through Europe for King Richard the Lion-Hearted, who had been captured on his return from the Crusades.

In this version, however, Blondel is a blue-jeaned, aspiring pop star in the medieval court, whose previous rondeaus had included ''Groats From Heaven'' and ''Send in the Jesters.'' His backing trio of untidy, punklike vocalists is called ''The Blondettes.'' They perform an unexpected and funny disco scene at the finale.

With flashing neon lights amid beautiful blue and silver sets and rich court dresses of the period, the dancers wiggle and gyrate amid 20th-century dry ice to Blondel's song ''I'm a Monarchist.''

Like Rice's ''Evita'' and ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' (Andrew Lloyd Webber of ''Cats'' wrote the music for both of these collaborations), this show is full of slick, quick-humored singing and movement.

* For those who prefer staying home and watching dance, an eight-week series on BBC television has presented a wide range of styles and dancers.

* Broadway's contribution to this lively British dance scene has been Bob Fosse's ''Dancin', '' which has brought another example of dance - high kicks, formation dancing, precision routines, timing, and showmanship.

Despite not-very-enthusiastic press coverage, it pleased at least one 13 -year-old schoolboy. ''It was super,'' he reported admiringly. ''Really neat.''

* The cherry on top of all this whipped-cream entertainment, for this correspondent, was the visit of Natalia Makarova to the Royal Opera House. She made several appearances as a guest of the Royal Ballet Company. I saw her perform the leading role, Natalia, in Sir Frederick Ashton's one-act ballet ''A Month in the Country.''

Freely adapted from the Turgenev novel, it is set in rural Russia at the end of the last century. Makarova as mistress of the dacha brought an intensity of Russian feeling, at times charming, at times fiery with emotion, and always with a wonderfully expressive face.

She had splendid support from the other dancers, notably Anthony Dowell as Beliaev and Karen Paisley as Vera. Yet the Soviet ballerina flavored the ballet with her own special touches, combining elegance and refinement with a passionate force that fitted well with the nuances of accompanying piano music by Chopin.

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