AS a modern dance choreographer, Ralph Lemon hasn't had it easy.By dance-world standards he was a latecomer to his profession, not learning to dance until his college years. As he gained experience, he grew uncomfortable dancing the way others wanted him to and decided to create his own dances. Rather than pursue a more lucrative career as an independent choreographer, he formed his own dance company, a costly and complex undertaking. Mr. Lemon thrives on challenge. Recently he said he felt "gladly uncomfortable" with "Persephone," one of his latest works. He wants to push audiences, as well as himself, beyond the pleasantly familiar into "the unknown." Stemming from his early studies in visual art, literature, and theater, Lemon's choreography challenges viewers through a variety of means: pure movement, narrative, theatrical devices, and a sense of storytelling. Lemon calls it "dance art." Formed just six years ago, the seven-member Ralph Lemon Company is already gaining recognition on the national and international dance scene. Its 39-year-old founder has a steady supply of commissions. Lemon has created more than 20 works for his New York-based company, as well as commissions for groups like the Lyon Opera Ballet, Alvin Ailey Repertory Company, the New Dance Ensemble, and the Boston Ballet, where he won the gold medal during its International Choreography Competition in 1988. The Ralph Lemon Company has come here to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival almost every summer since the company formed. Such residencies are crucial to fledgling groups, Lemon said in an interview one afternoon on the Pillow's campus. "We can't afford to work in New York. Support is being cut and creative time and work is becoming more expensive.... It's a very different time than it was for Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor and even Trisha Brown.... There are a lot more choreographers, which means there's less money...." That's why he has decided to keep his company small. "Ideally, it would be nice to have 10 to 12 dancers, but that went out the window a while ago," Lemon says. ll just exhaust a company of seven!" And exhaust them he does. In "Sleep," a 1989 group work performed one evening at the Pillow, the dancers whip themselves into a frenzy of simulated ritual worship. To Gabriel Faurs "Requiem," they flail their arms, fall down, jump up, and run out of breath. A couple of times, the bedraggled dancers form a straight line facing the audience, and with each index finger, push their lips into smiles. Without being pedantic, Lemon tells a sad tale of people dogmatically faithful to something - but spiritually lost. "Sextet," premiered this spring at the Joyce Theater in New York and also performed at the Pillow, presents a purer dance environment. Still, Lemon's fondness for drama and his fascination with the push-and-pull of human relationships shines through. The dancers fling and spin each other, sometimes cruelly, to Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata (Op. 106). Lemon started out early in life as a painter. As he finished high school in his home town of Minneapolis, he was directed toward commercial art, but that didn't interest him, he says. Instead, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota as a literature and drama major. On the advice of a teacher, he began taking dance classes and went to study with local modern dancer Nancy Hauser. He soon became a member of her dance company. "I grabbed hold of the performing arts with such a passion because it was so physical, and I hadn't been that physical in my life," Lemon explains. "Dance was so open and abstract, and there didn't seem to be any rules, whereas in painting and commercial art, there were rules. "When I took my first dance class with Nancy Hauser, she said, 'Do whatever you want,' basically. I was being encouraged to be who I was.... [She communicated to me that] dance is always 'becoming.' The rules are still being made. And that's how I feel today." Despite this expansive philosophy, Lemon admits he bumps up against restraints placed upon his craft by audiences and critics. "They want to see things that are a little bit more within a familiar perspective. The pieces need to 'work.' My whole idea about making art is, it's not supposed to 'work.' It's constant exploration, which means you're never quite sure...." Unadventurous audiences are a problem, he says, but "I see it as a good problem.... We can all be a little more open to the unknown without ever knowing it, accepting and embracing it without ever being able to say, 'I get it.' " That's not the point of art, he says. "The point is to experience it." Lemon himself is spotlighted in "Solo," a work that, along with "Sextet," is part of a suite called "Folk Dances." There is no music - just the sound of a taped conversation between Lemon and LaVaughn Robinson, an elderly black dancer. Mr. Robinson discusses the history of "buck dancing an improvisational jig performed by slaves at the request of their white owners. Energized by this narrative, Lemon dances frenetically, wearing baggy clothes and an Ubangi mask with enlarged lips to emphasize an abhorren t stereotype. Lemon dances to near exhaustion - apparently hoofing for his very life. "Solo" is Lemon's only work to date that deals explicitly with racism. As a black American, does he feel obligated to address racial themes? "I feel a big question mark about my responsibility," Lemon responds. "Part of me feels that it would be condescending to think that I need to be responsible to my black audience because they 'deserve' it.... What's an interesting problem for me is working within this genre - and not having a lot of blacks in this [field]." Lemon, whose company is all white, says he would love to have a multiracial company, but he tends to downplay such matters. "There is this concern with color. Why? It's odd. If I were white, and there was one black dancer in my company, there would be no question." Lemon says he grew up "somewhat colorblind" in Minnesota. "But I have the history of my parents and my grandparents, who did grow up in segregated black America. So I know that anger and frustration. But I'm of another generation, and I'm trying to be truthful to that."
* Ralph Lemon will perform "Solo" for the "Men Dancers Project," which opens Oct. 22 at the Joyce Theater. The next company performances are in San Antonio at the Carver Center (Nov.15-16), and in Columbus, Ohio, at the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts (Feb.13-15).