THE American Indian Dance Theater, which last visited New York in 1989, has brought its arresting display of winter ceremonial dances to the Joyce Theater here through Jan. 2. After that, the company - a kaleidoscope of whirling colors and imposing performers - tours for two months.
One of the most fascinating dances is ``Red Cedar Bark Ceremony,'' by the Kwakiutl tribe of Alert Bay, British Columbia. In it, a dancer wears a carved whale on his back to symbolize the tribe's ancient connection to the animals. A young man who is to be initiated into tribal adulthood wears a brown grass skirt. Two men in bird masks with elongated wooden beaks dance and clap. The initiate, led by a woman, dances with them.
At the end of the 19th century, Canadian government officials prohibited ``pagan rituals,'' including the red-cedar bark ceremony, and gave the tribe's ceremonial objects and masks to museums. The tribe performed the rituals in secret until the law was repealed in 1951.
The music, provided by male native Americans playing drums, rattles, and flutes, is closer in sound to that of the East, at least to nonnative ears. The evening begins with an older man tapping a drum and singing. He then hands the drum to a younger man, who takes over the singing. Dances of Eastern Woodland tribes and Plains tribes follow. Women walk in rhythm, moving up and down as well as forward, making the fringes on their shawls swing. Beadwork and feather designs on costumes become more elaborate as the dances go on.
Although the dance steps are not complex, movement patterns are. One dance resembles a square dance done in a circle by five men and four women. Another looks like a family gathering, partly because people are of different ages. The dancing grows faster and faster, especially in a modern version of a male war dance and in an intricate dance with hoops.
The final segment is Pueblo winter dances. This includes ``Eagle Dance,'' in which six men dance gracefully, in a team, with wings fastened to their arms. The audience at the Joyce was so entranced that they didn't applaud at the end of the dance. The company provides an opportunity for audience members to remain after some performances to ask the dancers questions.
The tour will take the group to Gainesville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Lake Worth, Fla.; Greenville, S.C.; Atlanta; Austin, Texas; Tucson, Scottsdale, and Sun City, Ariz.; and to Riverside, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, and San Francisco, Calif.