Now on its first American tour, the Ballet Rambert is a small British company whose delightfully modest presence belies a momentous history. And in several ways it encapsulates important trends in the current dance scene.
If you asked a Briton who it was that founded modern ballet, the answer would be the late Dame Marie Rambert (see the Monitor's June 18 issue), who with her tiny band of dancers first presented the works of soon-to-be-famous Frederick Ashton in the 1920s and Antony Tudor in the 1930s. In retrospect, those decades appear to be the heydey of the Ballet Rambert, yet even with the ascendency of the Royal Ballet in postwar Britain, the Rambert enterprise continued to be a vital spawning ground and beloved institution.
The American tour suggests that it is still going strong, even without the presence of Marie Rambert. The passing of the troupe's namesake has not thrown it into a crisis of transition.
Like many American companies in the last decade, Ballet Rambert kept expanding until Britain's economic crisis in the mid-1960s forced a major retrenchment.
With financial reorganization came artistic decisions that became trend setting. A smaller budget meant a smaller company performing less-expensive productions, which meant a transition to a modern-dance repertory.
Today, Ballet Rambert represents a prototypical compromise. The dancers are classically trained but dance in works that fuse ballet and modern-dance techniques. The American influence is still strong - it is in all European troupes with a contemporary profile - yet it is not American dominated. Nor is it dominated by a single point of view. It is fair-mindedly eclectic, surviving without a genius such as Rambert's, but with good taste and much talent.
Having seen Ballet Rambert in a mixed bill at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College (the first stop on its tour), I was most impressed by the quality of dancing. While much modern dance brings out the angst in performers, the Rambert women especially have a wholesome, lyrical approach as rewarding as it is unusual. They're more interested in showing us the musical line of the dance than in demonstrating their prowess and muscular intensity.
They have a light touch - or is it that typically British quality of not overdoing things? In any case, the Rambert women are the most feminine modern dancers I've seen. The men are excellent also, though not so unusual in demeanor.
The choreography, too, is marked by temperate disposition. One of the group's choreographers, Richard Alston, is clearly a disciple of the austere, intellectual Merce Cunningham, the great American dancemaker. Yet Alston's ''Apollo Distruaght'' and ''Rainbow Ripples'' have a mitigating ease. Alston has borrowed Cunningham's hard-edged construction of dance phrases and then softened them up a bit to create a more accessible sense of flow. While ''Apollo Distraught'' doesn't live up to its provocative title in terms of dramatic content - one isn't even sure which dancer is Apollo - its sheer inventiveness keeps one engrossed.
The other pieces on the well-balanced program were the charmingly primitive ''Pribaoutki,'' by Robert North, which plays into Stravinsky's Russian folkloric music without getting cute about it; and Christopher Bruce's ''Ghost Dances,'' about oppression in South America. The oppressed come from all walks of life. In not being only a heart-throbber about peasants, ''Ghost Dances'' is a protest ballet with a difference. And that difference is a measure of the Ballet Rambert's intelligence and quiet dignity.
After performances in Mexico,until when the Ballet Rambert will dance in Madison, Wis., Oct. 29 and 30; Lafayette, Ind., Nov. 2 and 3; St. Louis, Nov. 5 and 6; Iowa City, Iowa, Nov. 9 and 10; New Orleans, Nov. 12 and 13; San Francisco, Nov. 16 and 17; and Los Angeles, Nov. 19 and 20.