IN an austere rehearsal studio deep beneath the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, three dancers are struggling with James Kudelka's latest choreographic conundrum. Called ''States of Grace,'' the dance is intricate, startling, and -- with opening night less than a week away -- unfinished.
Not that Kudelka minds. In fact, he seems to suggest that if dancers are not still grappling with their roles at the 11th hour, the creative process has ended too soon. That he has temporarily returned to Toronto, where he is artist-in-residence with the National Ballet of Canada, only heightens this challenge.
''James doesn't tell us what to think or what to feel,'' says Susan Jaffe, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater (ABT), which will give ''States# of Grace'' its world premiere tonight at the Met. ''We have no idea what he's looking for until it slowly unfolds in front of us.''
However unorthodox his methods, Kudelka has swept across the landscape of North American dance with the tenacity and unpredictability of an arctic wind. Just shy of his 40th birthday, he has created nearly 50 dances in the last decade, many of them for such prominent companies as the National Ballet of Canada and the San Francisco Ballet. Anna Kisselgoff, the chief dance critic for the New York Times, hails him as ''not only Canada's premier ballet choreographer but also one of the best in the world today.''
One of six children born to a Hungarian immigrant and his Canadian wife, Kudelka grew up on a dairy farm 30 miles north of Toronto. Although bucolic is not a word that describes his dark and dynamic idiom, the 1,000-acre expanse left an indelible imprint on his spatial sensibility.
''We had cows, hills, and great places to toboggan,'' he said last month in an interview# at ABT's offices. ''You know, space.'' Perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes radiating enthusiasm, he pronounces the word as if with a capital S.
Dressed in cowboy boots, bluejeans, and a plaid shirt, he looks more like a wayward rancher than the moody and mercurial artiste he is said to be. Nor does he much resemble the young performer who joined the National Ballet of Canada at age 16, rose to the rank of first soloist, and toured with Nureyev.
But Kudelka is all this and more. Since injuring his back nine years ago, he has given his undivided attention to making new dances.
Last year, in his first collaboration with ABT, he created an exhilarating sequence of duets called ''Cruel World.''
''States of Grace,'' which sets eight men and three women to a symphony by Paul Hindemith, marks a departure from this binary world. Seeking new challenges, Kudelka has arrived at the more complicated task of pl#acing dancers in motion in ensembles of three.
While rehearsing one of the dance's innumerable lifts, Robert Hill and Charles Askegard raise Jaffe into the air as if she were a seal cresting a wave or a bird riding an updraft.
The dismount proves more complicated. Nearly every time they try it, one of the dancers lets a hand stray, takes a false step, or makes a mental slip. As the score builds to a crescendo, confusion overtakes them altogether. They stop, then dis#perse to different corners of the room.
Afterward, Jaffe notes that none of the dancers has ever performed a pas de trois. When performing duets with a single partner in the past, she says, the two developed distinct ways of moving and communicating together. With three dancers in the equation, signals easily become crossed.
The presence of another male dancer, moreover, leaves Hill and Askegard feeling physically and emotionally crowded. ''In a pas de deux, the guy is basically in control,'' Hill says. ''I don't have much patience for having someone else there.''
Kudelka revels in such tension but says he does not consciously plan it. ''I never thought, 'What if I play with this power?' or, 'How do three of us share the same space?''' he says. ''It's just something I discovered as we moved along.''
IT is no accident, however#, that his dancers must work out some things for themselves. By giving them a physical challenge to master, and leaving them to divine the emotional content, Kudelka is relentless in keeping dancers on their toes.
Kevin McKenzie, now in his third season as ABT's artistic director, says this forced physical concentration makes for a richer performance. ''It's like when someone is really frightened,'' he says. ''All the barriers fall away, and we see the true self.''
Margie Gillis, who has both danced and #choreographed with Kudelka, is an avid believer. ''James gets me to move in ways I never dreamed I could,'' she says.
Susan Jaffe shares this view. Borne skyward by Hill and Askegard, she spreads her arms like a fledgling freed from earthly constraints. On touching down, she beseeches them, ''Keep me up there longer! It's so pretty, I hate to let it disappear so fast.''
* American Ballet Theater performs at Lincoln Center's Metropolitan Opera House through June 17.