CAN YOU transplant a festival? The American Dance Festival is attempting to answer that question the hard way, by actually trying it.

The ADF, unquestionably one of the most important institutions in the history of American dance, had been domiciled for 30 years at Connecticut College in New London. Two years ago, however, as relations with the college deteriorated. ADF decided to move, and this summer the festival was transferred to Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Though the six-week event has concluded a first season at its new site, it's too early to tell whether the transplant will "take." There are some extremely optimistic signs and some discouraging ones as well.

"It was the right move at the right time," Charles Reinhart, ADF director since 1969, said during the penultimate festival week in Durham.

"One of our concerns was whether we'd get an audience in North Carolina for our performances, and the fact is we've had fabulous attendance, our best ever. And we went way up on subscription sales. We're serving a whole new audience here, too. It's so nice not to know everybody in the audience. Not that we don't appreciate our old regulars, but some people keep talking about the Good Old Days. I don't need those good old days -- I can remember when you had to clap your head off after a performance not to embarrass the dancers, because there were so few people in the house.

"It's a whole new scene for us down here. Our student body used to come predominantly from the Connecticut-New York area. Now North Carolina is number one. New York is still second, but after that it's states like Virginia, Florida, Illinois, Ohio and California that are sending us the most.

"The main thing, though, is the response of the local community, which has just been marvelous in every way. We've been made to feel important here -- that's a big change, and it's really nice."

Local enthusiasm was one of the primary motivations for the move to Duke. Last year, ADF empaneled a national committee to select a new site for the 1978 festival, and Duke was chosen from among some 40 interested institutions largely on the basis of the spirit of goodwill and welcome manifested by the North Carolinians.

Another major reason was the promise of financial support, both from Duke and the Liggett Group, a Durham-based business conglomerate.

But that's where the discouragement comes in -- for at summer's end the promise still seems far from realization.

It would be hard to think of an arts conclave more worth perpetuating than the festival. The ADF has been and continues to be a unique center of creative activity, model instruction and audience development. And its roots go deep. ADF was an outgrowth of the remarkable Bennington School of the Dance, which began in the summer of 1934 and continued for nearly a decade to bring together most of the major early figures of modern dance in an enterprise of singular vision and vitality. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm were the leading foursome. They, their companies and their students met for a summer of classes, workshops, performances and premieres, and afterwards, the participants returned to the four corners of the country with missionary excitement about a burgeoning new art form.

The war years interrupted things at Bennington, and for various other reasons, matters seemed to have run their course there by the mid-'40s. In 1948, however, the American Dance Festival picked up the thread with its inaugural summer at Connecticut College. [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] where Bennington had left off, inevitably with changes in personnel, program and outlook, but with many of the same guiding principles. Classes (the student body rose to the present level of 300), workshops, performances, commissions and the creation of new dance works co(tinued to be the backbone of the operation.

During that first summer of 1948, Graham premiered her "Diversion of Angels" (under its original title of "Wilderness Stair"), and in its three decades of residence at New London, ADF saw the emergence of over 170 new dances, among them such master-works as Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavane," Paul Taylor's "Aureole," Doris Humphrey's "Ruins and Visions," Erick Hawkins' "Geography of Noon," Merce Cunningham's "AnticMeet" and Alvin Alley's "Masekela Language."

Times and fashions changed, of course, in ways that the festival naturally reflected. The basic core of modern dance instruction was gradually amplified by the introduction of courses in ballet, jazz, ethnic idioms, dance therapy, dance notation, kinesiology and other disciplines. Starting in 1969, performances of new works by Yvonne Rainer, Meredith Monk, Ann Halprin, Rudy Perez, Twyla Tharp and others brought the bracing breath of a new rebellious generation of choreographers into the ADF atmosphere. Over the years, the program was expanded to include significant new components -- an annual dance critics conference, a TV-video workshop, a workshop for the collaboration of composers and choreographers, a dance educator's seminar, a community outreach program, and others.

This year's move to Duke entailed the giving up of some advantages (proximity to New York and its unparalleled dance community, for instance) and the acquiring of others (a far more hospitable academic administration, for one).Page Auditorium at Duke, used for major festival performances, has a good stage and somewhat larger seating capacity than Connecticut's Palmer Auditorium, but the orchestra-level sight lines are execrable. The festival's new immediate environs offer little enhancement -- Durham appears to be a fairly drab, somnolent place, in summertime at any rate. A more serious difficulty is the dispersion of festival activities at Duke.

Performances take place on the new West Campus, classes and workshops at the none-too-close East Campus, and the faculty is housed somewhere in between. Nor is there any central meeting place where an all-important informal personal interchange can readily occur.

In the final analysis, though, whether or not ADF can successfully maintain itself in future years at Duke will be determined by finances. On the strength of assurances of support by the festival's new hosts, Reinhart increased this year's budget to a record $850,000. In past years, when Reinhart was his own fund-raiser, he saw to it that the program and fiscal resources were evenly matched, and the festival ran consistently in the black. This year, for the first time, ADF has ended the summer with a $150,000 deficit.

Duke, Liggett and other local interests had not only promised that sustaining funds would be found, but also that they'd help raise a million-dollar endowment for ADF over a three-year period.

For his part, Reinhart is keeping the faith, though not without some understandable qualms. "I know they'out there busily canvassing," he says, "and they keep telling me not to worry. Part of me is not worrying at all, and another part of me that I can't control too much -- the part between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. -- worries very much."

Whatever happens at Duke, ADF is part of the bedrock of our national dance culture, and as the Tanglewood of dance, its continued flourishing is a top priority for the whole of the dance community. The festival has survived past upheavals, and taken the move south very much in its stride. There's plenty of reason for confidence that whatever the future brings, ADF will see it through.