The Joffrey Ballet's `Billboards' Offers Freewheeling Pop Dance

Four choreographers mix jetes and plies with music by Prince

ONCE upon a time, dances by ballet companies didn't have titles like ``Computer Blue'' or ``I Wanna Melt with U,'' and their music didn't feature the wails of synthesizers and electric guitars.

But that was before pop music became a frequent interloper in the world of serious dance, thanks to such forward-looking choreographers as Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey, among others.

Earlier this month, the Joffrey Ballet leapt to the forefront of the rock-and-dance contingent with ``Billboards,'' a set of four dances inspired by the aesthetics of advertising and set to music by Prince, one of the world's most celebrated pop stars. Apparently delighted with this high-culture credential, he has signed his entire name - Prince Rogers Nelson - to the program.

But don't worry, the music is vintage Prince, with no false dignity or elevated pretensions. The dances themselves are similarly light and lively, although they aren't exciting enough to suggest that other dance companies should also scurry into Prince's territory.

Once a regular feature on the Manhattan dance scene, the Joffrey has spent much of its time in California for the past 10 years.

The company still comes East whenever it can, however, and ``Billboards'' reached New York as a major attraction in the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which thrives on exactly the sort of boundary-blurring and genre-bending that this varied evening presents.

COLLABORATIVE works are also a Next Wave specialty, and the credits for ``Billboards'' have plenty of names to offer, with no fewer than four choreographers - Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Peter Pucci, and Margo Sappington - working with Joffrey chief Gerald Arpino, who both conceived and directed the show.

Most of the score comes from preexisting Prince recordings, although ``Thunder/Rain'' is set to an extended version of his ``Thunder'' written specially for the Joffrey - a troupe that evidently made a strong impression on Prince when he saw ballet for the first time at the opening of their 1991 season in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, while all involved have done energetic work in ``Billboards,'' none of the choreographers has come up with any particularly fetching or memorable ideas.

The athletic elegance of Dean's opening dance, ``Sometimes It Snows in April,'' is pleasant but not thrilling, and lacks the sense of barely contained ecstasy that marks the more minimalist works of her early career. ``Thunder/Purple Rain'' is dominated more by Charles Atlas's costumes than by Moulton's choreography, which has the inventive but eventually tiring atmosphere of a Halloween party run amok.

Sappington's four-part ``Slide'' has touches of humor but little real wit or passion, and the only first-class parts of Pucci's concluding ``Willing and Able'' are the opening portion and a subsequent pas de deux, performed with sizzling conviction by Jodie Gates and Tom Mossbrucker on the evening I attended.

What all the dances share is a tendency to build momentum and interest as they pass the halfway mark and head toward their respective finales. This is exactly how most rock songs are structured, including those by Prince, so it's fair to say that the music and choreography of ``Billboards'' are well matched - in the sense that each element gains from the other, but neither is very compelling on its own. Unless you're a devoted Prince fan, of course, which millions of people are.

``Billboards'' displays pop ballet in its most freewheeling mode, but unfortunately not at its most compelling.

* The Joffrey Ballet continues its 1993 season with performances of ``The Nutcracker'' at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, Iowa, Dec. 1-5; the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, Dec. 8-19; and Northrup Auditorium in Minneapolis, Dec. 22-26.

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