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DANCE SHOWDOWN. Choreography contest at Boston Ballet lets the audience, not just the judges, pick the winners.

WEARING a look that was deadpan but somehow mischievous, too, a dancer sitting in front of a closed curtain at Boston's Wang Center had the attention of the whole audience. Maybe it was his silence, or the baggy clothes and pointed hat, that identified him as a descendant of the Italian commedia dell'arte character Pulchinella. Giggles broke out as he disappeared and returned with a table. Snickers grew when he went out again, reappearing to set the table. And when he sat down triumphantly for the last time, setting a watermelon on the plate, there was a big laugh. With that, the curtain opened on Ralph Lemon's ``Punchinello'' for the Boston Ballet, a work aswarm with clowns. Nine-year-olds, teen-agers, men, and women, all dressed in floppy clothes, made oddly delicate shrugs and ``I dunno'' gestures, while adroitly spinning out a whole life story. Watermelons kept reappearing, getting a bigger laugh every time.

But the piece had a sweetness and poignancy, because Lemon wasn't just going for the laughs, and because of the way the children interacted with their rascally seniors.

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``There's nothing they can do at that age that's dishonest,'' Lemon said.

Ralph Lemon is known for his wit, the natural look of his dances, and his use of props. But he's not known as a ballet choreographer, and he found the Wang Center to be ``the biggest theater I've ever seen.'' He wasn't the only newcomer. The four other works on the program were also by talented young choreographers. Monica Levy, Diane Coburn Bruning, Gerri Houlihan, and Gail Kachadurian were finalists in the Boston International Choreography Competition. Boston Ballet artistic director Bruce Marks, looking for dances that would serve audiences and dancers, and for choreographers who ``truly needed a company to work with,'' culled them from about 250 entrants.

For Lemon, the opportunity to work with dancers five days a week, four hours a day, for a month, on just one ballet was a luxury. ``I can work with my company [Ralph Lemon and Company] two to three hours a day if I can afford it, and they're tired from their restaurant jobs. They're not as focused,'' he said. The competition allowed him to try a more ambitious work. ``In the New York scene,'' where he is based, ``you can plod along on a small-studio level for years. We need larger canvases.'' Lemon won the gold medal and $3,000.

Diane Coburn Bruning has made ballets for several smaller companies. When she approached the Boston Ballet, she was told about the competition. She felt that ``if that is the way I can soonest work with the Boston Ballet,'' she was willing to try. Her ``Gothic Tapestries'' gained her the bronze medal and $1,000. Though neither choreographer was assured of anything beyond living expenses until the awards on opening night, both felt the working situation and exposure were pay enough.

``This last month has been magical,'' said Bruck Marks of the preparation for the competition. He divided the dancers among the choreographers at the outset. ``You should hear them: `My choreographer did this,' and `My choreographer said that.' They felt like teams in the best sense.''

The idea of opening the company to younger choreographers goes back to 1978, when Boston Ballet founder E. Virginia Williams started the Choreographers' Showcase. Marks, who took over as artistic director in 1985 after Mrs. Williams's passing, has revived it as a competition, with medals and cash prizes for first, second, and third place for the ballets chosen by a panel of judges. ``I don't think any of us were comfortable with it being a competition,'' Miss Bruning said.

``I did it more for the audience than for the choreographers,'' Marks said. ``If they just see a new work in a showcase, they say, `Well, that's interesting.' I forced everyone in the audience to pick a work `they thought would win.' It was a different psychological twist. They had to make decisions, and choices, and think about the merits of the work.''

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Not everyone made a choice. The head usher at the Wang Center, a veteran of all the Choreographers' Showcases, told Marks, ``This is the first time there are no clinkers.''

Leslie Jonas, a soloist in the company who danced in ``Punchinello,'' agreed. ``It makes me optimistic. There is a lot of good stuff out there.''

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