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That adventurous Joffrey

Absence makes the heart grow exuberant -- or so it seems after watching the Joffrey Ballet in the opening peformances of its season at the New York City Center.

This engagement, which runs until Nov. 23, marks the company's first repertory season in here in two years. Many of the dancers are new, but all of them are dancing with special verve, as if to acknowledge the specialness of the occasion. As for repertory, there are no "as ifs" about it. With 11 new productions coming up, the Joffrey Ballet is absolutely brimming over with energy.

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Already two of those novelties have been performed, both advancing singular aspects of the many-faceted Joffrey repertory. The revival of Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations" again proves Robert Joffrey's talent for scouting up worthy but neglected ballets. The world premiere of Laura Dean's "Night" gives evidence of the troupe's adventurousness. Dean, a guru of the avant-garde, is the last choreographer you'd expect to find in as popular a context as the Joffrey Ballet. Maybe that's what prompted Joffrey to commission a piece from her.

At any rate, "Night" has certainly done some of its job by prompting controversy. During intermission, I overheard 50 different reactions within five minutes.

My own falls somewhere in the lower range of reaction. The unique expertise of ballet dancers can reveal new colorations in the style of choreographers not used to working with ballet dancers, but Laura Dean's style seems at odds with ballet. Her work is lovely for its pristine simplicity, but the simplicity which looks so natural on her own company looks studied on the Joffrey dancers. What looks stripped down on Dean's group looks stripped bare on the ballet stage.

It's possible that once the Joffrey dancers make peace with Dean's austerity they'll flow with its rhythms more easily, look less like automatons. But there's a structural flaw in "Night" too, and that dancers can do little about.

Dean's style has a special mystery. Despite deliberate repetition of steps and combinations, her dances usually evolve in a subliminal way. Their seemingly invisible changes correspond to the music Dean composes herself: The same melody grows and keeps changing simply by changing key subtly and when least expected. Dean's musical composition for "Night," scored for two pianos, casts the Deanian spell, but one could see right through the choreography's permutations. "Night" is a patchwork quilt of ideas. One wanted a seamless expanse of white cotton.

The revival of Ashton's poetic, enigmatic "Illuminations" is not as one remembers it and hence expects of it, either. But what this interpretation of Rimbaud's life misses in delicacy and evocativeness it makes up for in sheer dramatic impact. With Gregory Huffman's visceral portrayal of the poet, and Beatriz Rodriguez's incredibly electric reading of Profane Love, this "Illuminations" has a blood and guts aura which is valid.

Yet what is still most fascinating about "Illuminations" is its place in the Ashton canon. Made in 1950 for the New York City Ballet, this dance-drama seems a unique item in the British choreographer's repertory for the loose way it fuses dance and gesture, its slightly rambling structure, its heavy use of symbolism. One cherishes "Illuminations" because it's the perfect antidote to those who think they've got Ashton all figured out.

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