DURING its 38-year history, the Joffrey Ballet has kept itself rooted in the classical tradition while staying on the cutting edge of dance.
The company has commissioned the first ballets of United States choreographers such as Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, and Laura Dean; revived ballets of George Balanchine, Leonide Massine, and Jerome Robbins; and reworked a number of ``lost'' ballets of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
Last year, it premiered the hugely successful ``Billboards'' - a hot, hip, full-length rock ballet set to the raw energetic music of pop star Prince.
Earlier this month at New York's Lincoln Center, for its first season here since 1991, the Joffrey performed three different programs that included ``Billboards,'' one world premiere, two New York premieres, and three revivals.
The curtain on the second program opened with the revival of ``Les Patineurs,'' a fairy-tale-like ballet choreographed by Frederick Ashton and first performed by the Royal Ballet in London in 1937. The set is a Victorian skating rink flanked by trees, lacy white gates, and hanging lanterns. Fifteen dancers take the stage at different times in a series of one-act vignettes that mimic the graceful, flowing movements of ice skaters.
Several of the divertissements are playful and light, with the women dressed in Parisian-style frocks and hats; others glorify the exquisite flexibility of the dancers.
Calvin Kitten, who performs in four of the nine miniballets, is amazingly lithe, especially when he spins endlessly like a perfectly balanced top with one leg outstretched at a 90-degree angle.
In two of the ballets, the Joffrey experiments with love triangles, rather than love duets. But each piece, about a woman torn between two men, evokes different emotions and contrasts in style.
The world premiere of ``A Tri-Fling'' is a semisultry eight-minute ballet set to a specially commissioned contemporary score by Tommy Mother. The curtain opens on a dramatic but sparse scene - three silhouettes against a dark background bisected by a long rectangular shape.
Chicago choreographer Randy Duncan first pairs the female dancer with a partner clad in the more conservative garb of shirt, vest, and pants, whereas the Romeo she temporarily leaves him for sports a shirt open to the navel. Duncan, who describes the piece as ``a ballet based on the inherent emotions played out in a love triangle,'' supplies plenty of tension and energy among the trio as each man competes for the ballerina, twisting and hurling her in different positions.
Tommy Mother's score for solo viola and rich percussion begins with a pulsating African-like beat and turns jazzier as the piece progresses.
In contrast, ``The Garden of Villandry'' is more dreamlike and gentle, pairing two men dressed in suits with a woman in formal turn-of-the-century dress. The ballet takes its name from the Chateau of Villandry in France's Loire Valley, which is known for its spectacular gardens.
Onstage, a pianist, cellist, and violinist play romantic music by Franz Schubert. In this piece, the movements are slower than in ``A Tri-Fling,'' and it is unclear at times which man represents the third party.
It is a delightful dance with touches of almost silent-movie humor as the men tug at each other and each pulls the other away from the object of his affection. Choreographed by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett, and Felix Blaska, ``The Garden of Villandry'' was first performed by ``Crowsnest'' in Paris in 1979.
The last selection of the evening was ``Light Rain,'' a fast-moving ballet Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino choreographed in 1981. It opens with a group of dancers in nude-colored costumes shimmying to Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier's unusual musical score, which melds Eastern rhythms with a Western beat.
Arpino created this passionate piece as a tribute to youth, and it is striking in its pure energy and beautiful choreography. Several movements elicited ``bravos'' from the audience, such as when two male dancers turn a ballerina upside down, hold her above them with her legs in a perfect split, and then lead her around in this position. It is easy to see why ``Light Rain'' has become one of the company's most popular ballets.
* Here is a partial 1994 performance schedule for the Joffrey Ballet:
Louisville, Ken., Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, April 21-22; Frostburg, Md., Performing Arts Center, Frostburg State University, April 24; Cleveland, Ohio, State Theatre, May 3-8; Memphis, Tenn., DeFrank Music Hall, May 13-15; Atlanta, Fox Theatre, May 17-22; Toronto, O'Keefe Centre for the Performing Arts, May 27-28; Ottawa, National Arts Centre, May 31-June 2; Vienna, Va., Wolf Trap Farm Park, June 9-11; Lewiston, N.Y., Artpark, June 14-16; Vancouver, Canada, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, June 21-26; Los Angeles, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, June 28-July 3; San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House, July 6-10. The company also plans to perform in St. Louis, Sept. 23-24; Ames, Iowa, Sept. 26-28; and Lincoln, Neb., Sept. 30- Oct. 2.