LAR LUBOVITCH has worked in the performing arts long enough to appreciate good timing. After directing his own modern-dance company for 25 years, he can bring down the house with both synchronized steps and unexpected gestures. He knows about bad timing, too. Two weeks before the troupe opened its current run at New York's Joyce Theater, one of his dancers resigned.
Nevertheless, Lubovitch found a replacement in time to win over an opening-night audience that filled each interlude with enthusiastic applause. The company, which appears at the Joyce through Nov. 13, performed dances that Lubovitch and many critics agree are his greatest contribution to the art. Among them was his newest work, set to Cole Porter tunes, called ``So In Love.''
Now approaching his 50th birthday, Lubovitch has turned out more than 50 dances for his troupe and dozens more for ballet companies, Broadway musicals -- even Olympic ice skaters. What unites his repertoire is not a recurring theme or ambience but a penchant for rhapsodic movement and elaborate formal structures.
In an age when so much art aspires to philosophic abstraction or social commentary, Lubovitch brings an uncommon aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, he is among the few living choreographers who celebrate the beauty of pure movement. Ask him what his work is ``about,'' and he begins to sound like a 19th-century poet.
``I'm creating beauty for the eye and for the imagination,'' he says. ``And, as closely as I can, I'm trying to embody an abstract sort of truth.''
Lubovitch spoke in the offices of the American Ballet Theater, with which he works closely. He has entrusted several of his dances to the ballet's repertory, including the finale to ``The Red Shoes,'' the failed Broadway musical based on the 1948 film. The company returned the favor this month when it lent him a dancer to round out the program.
His manner is both gruff and reticent, and when he voices his opinions it is without a trace of arrogance. A native of Chicago, he puts on no airs. He is dressed for comfort, not style, in running shoes, black denim, and a cotton T-shirt. He is wearing wire-rimmed glasses, but no jewelry and no watch.
Lubovitch takes a dim view of current choreography. ``So much of the dance that I see appears heartless, decorative, and overly intellectual,'' he says. ``I like to associate the idea of dancing as a passionate act, as a very humanistic thing.''
As a child, Lubovitch made up dances for his brother and two sisters ``without really understanding that it was unusual or special.'' He also drew and painted, and it was these talents he worked to refine through courses at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Iowa. His plans changed abruptly when he saw Jose Lims modern-dance troupe perform in Iowa. The experience, as he tells it, was an epiphany.
``I had always been a dancer and a choreographer, but I didn't know there was a profession,'' he says. ``Seeing the Limon company was the first time I saw that these things existed outside my own imagination.''
The following summer he signed up for classes with Limon and Alvin Ailey at Connecticut College. From there he went to New York, where he studied at the Juilliard School and danced with numerous modern, ballet, jazz, and ethnic companies. In 1969, he staged an evening of his own dances at the 92nd Street Y, a leading venue for modern dance at that time. A quarter of a century later, the troupe is still going.
``Music is almost always the motivator,'' says Lubovitch, who has set dances to the lavish strains of Mozart and Strauss, the melodies of Gershwin and Ives, and the futuristic rhythms of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. How this music motivates him is not easily explained. ``It's not something I can articulate,'' he says, ``except that it's the music that makes me need to dance.''
Choreography, as Lubovitch practices it, is about creating a spatial version of the music. Craft plays a role in structuring and refining a dance, he says, but intuition comes first. ``I bar the intellect and just work intuitively to play the music with my body, to be an instrument of the music,'' he says.
Lubovitch emerged as a luminary of modern dance with the 1978 premiere of ``North Star,'' which opened the program at the Joyce. Moving to a characteristically ethereal score by Glass, the dancers form a pulsing, elastic organism. Their molten energy creates a sense of matter coalescing and dividing, of bonds broken and formed.
Light years separate ``North Star'' from the recently completed ``So In Love.'' Set to five contemporary recordings from the ``Red Hot and Blue'' album, a tribute to Cole Porter, it plunges into the lives of several individuals who are unlucky in love. Two segments stand out.
Dirk Platzek and Silvia Nevjinsky romp through Jimmy Somerville's ``From This Moment On'' like a modern-day Punch and Judy. Dressed as wrestlers, they enact a bawdy and combative love affair against the mocking backdrop of their enlarged shadows.
Where one singer after another has interpreted Porter's songs with considerable sentimentality, Lubovitch hears darker rumblings. His ear for such undertones is guiding his next project as well -- choreographing a new version of ``Oklahoma!'' The production, set to premiere in London early next year, takes a fresh look at the 1943 musical.
`` `Oklahoma!' depicted a version of America that never was, but that needed to be idealized at the time,'' Lubovitch says. ``But even in the most beatific setting there is a dark underpinning. Now we're able to take a longer, fuller look....''