THE TURNING POINT," the only ambitious feature film about the ballet world to come along in the three decades since "The Red Shoes," will go voer big with dance fans, who by now actually constitute a mass audience.

The movie frankly caters to a public that has hads its consciousness raised about dance - by glamorous Russian emigres, by exposure on an unprecedented scale through television, by a new susceptibility to an art form that is singularly sensuous and centered on the body as its medium of expression. And as the focal point of its dancing, the picture has Mikhail Baryshnikov, the most precocious male dancer of our time, and one of the great ballet artists of the century.

Those who are drawn to "The Turning Point" primarily by a thirst for dance, however, are apt in the long run to be gratified and disasspointed all at once.

No self-respecting dance enthusiast will care to pass up a movie that feature's Baryshnikov's screen debut, along with dance contributions from Suzanne Farreli and Peter Martins, Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun. Martine van Hamel, Marianna Tcherkassky, Antoinette Sibley and Fernando Bujones, among others.

But set beside th experience of ballet in the theater, or the spate of TV specials on ballet in recent years. "The Turning Point" seems more like a tray of titillating hors d'oeuvres with no entree to follow.

But set beside the experience of ballet in the theater, or the spate of TV specials on ballet in recent years, "The Turning Point" seems more like a tray of titillating hors d'oeuvres with no entree to follow.

The core of the drama is given to a pair of mature women, played by Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. Once, as fellow corps members in a major ballet company, they shared artistic hopes. Now, years later, Emma (Bancroft) finds her career as a ballerina on the point of decline, and Deedee (MacLaine), having married, moved to Oklahoma and raised a family, wonders whether she chose wisely. Their paths intersect again when Emilia, Deedee's grown daughter (played by American Ballet Theater dancer Leslie Browne), is invited to join Emma's troupe.

It is at this point that Baryshnikov, who plays the company's virile Russian star, Yuri, enters the plot as Emilia's "love interest."

Arlene Croce, discussing Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in a recent essay on dance film, draws an interesting distinction. " . . . where Astaire achieved dance films with stories," she writes, "Kelly made story films with dances." Neither "The Turning Point" nor "The Red Shoes" is musical, but they are subject to the same sort of [WORD ILLEGIBLE].

Like the former, "The Red Shoes" was a melodrama, but is culminated in a whole, uninterrupted ballet which in turn mirrored the romantic dilemma of the film. This was a dance film, because dance was its primary language, and because the style of even its melodrama was the heightened one of ballet fantasy.

"The Turning Point," for all that its subject matter is the lives of dancers, is a story film told in an essentially realistic manner, and garnished with dance passages. This may prove to be a bonus at the box office, but it has its drawbacks from a dance perspective.

Because the movie is about ballet dancers and a ballet company, the dance sequences emerge quite naturally from the narrative flow. There is only one passage, though, in which the dancing really participates in the unfolding of the drama itself, and for that very reason it is the most affecting dance scene in the film. It is the moment when Yuri and Emilia first awaken to their mutual attraction, as they are rehearsing - what else? - a pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet" (MacMillan version) alone in a studio.

In the time-honored Hollywood fashion, still as effective as ever, an orchestra wells up from nowhere with the lush Prokofiev score. The lyric rapture of the choreography, all fluttering pursuits, swooning catches and effusive lifts, becomes one with the ecstasy of the lovers, and the moving camera, the darkened lighting and the dissolves become collaborators in the seduction, as the studio yields to the bedroom without transition.

There are other dance "highlights" thoughout the movie, of course. The opening title credits are displayed over the ethereal entrance of the corps de ballet in the "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from "La Bayadere," the absolute distillation of the classic style.

Baryshnikov partners Sibley in a passage from "Giselle," Act II, including the adagio. The "Don Quixote" pas de deux is danced by Baryshnikov and Browne in a scene that affords some of the most thrillingly recorded virtuosity in the film - Baryshnikov, cutting through the air like a javelin, projects from the screen almost all of the same incredible kinetic intensity he does from the stage.

A final "Chopin Etude" by Ashton during the closing credits gives Leslie Browne - a lovely dancer but still an unformed artist - her best opportunity to display her poetic refinement.

Of all these passages, however, and others elsewhere in the film, only the "Don Quixote" is anywhere near complete. The others are excerpts, some of them so brief - the tantalizing sight of Martine van Hamel filling out a phrase from "Swan Lake," Act II, for example - as to be painful in their truncation.

Most of the "name" guest appearances are packed into a "Gala" performance, true enough to the real-life ABT fetish for these variety acts in recent years, as a fund-raising gambit. In this way, we get micro-glimpses of Haydee and Cragun, Farrell and Martins and so on. In an actual gala, though, at least one gets complete excerpts - in the movie, because of cutaways and in order not to hold up the drama too long, what we see are snippets of snippets.

All of this has been carefully tended by director Herbert Ross, executive producer Nora Kaye and artistic adviser Oliver Smith, whose ballet credentials are impeccable, along with the expert assistance of cinematographer Robert Surtees.

Most of the dancing, therefore, is handsomely staged and photographed (though legs and feet are occasionally sacrificed to pictorial or mood effects), and the wide screen and deep focus are sensibly used to provide a feeling for space and scale that might not have been possible in earlier eras. On the other hand, "The Red Shoes" was far more venturesome in its visual conception; the fantasy aspect opened up vistas denied to the more naturalistic "Turning Point."

There's more to the film, to be sure, than performances, even as concerns the world of dance. We get a good, incisive look at classes, rehearsals, backstage life, and even a bit of ballet politics, though this side - as manifest in the performances of Martha Scott in the role modeled after ABT director Lucia Chase, and Daniel Levans as a brash young choreographer - is rather camped up.

For the most part, though, the scenes of ballet routine in all its sweaty mundantiy ring true - the locations, the lines, the people are real. But, once again, there's not much sense of what a company is all about - the focus is all at the top, at the level of directors and principlas. This too corresponds to reality in a way - it's the ABT star syndrome come home to roost.

But is "The Turning Point" in fact a turning point? Will it rouse a whole new generation of spectators to an adoration of classical dancing and the ballet mystique, as "The Red Shoes" did? My guess is that to one extent or another, it may well turn more people on, at least to ballet chic. A notice has already come in from a merchandising outfit that it has a complete "boutique" in readiness for "The Turning Point" release - t-shirts, posters, tote bags and scarves. These don't sound like the insignia of a revolution, somehow.

It may simply be that the point has already been turned, that ballet is already about as "in" a cultural topic as it is ever likely to be. "The Turning Point" seems more like a summarization and expression of a change that has already taken place - the vaunted "dance explosion" - than a harbinger of one to come.