The flagrantly theatrical symbolism of Gene Hill Sagan's "Fire Sermon," given its U.S. premiere by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center last night, is a common commodity in European dance, but rare in this country, where we see it occasionally, say, in the work of Glen Tetley.

To American eyes used to more fastidious idioms, it borders dangerously on pretension, especially since the meaning of all the heavy-handed visual implication is decidedly obscure. At the same time, it is clear from this work that the choreographer has a pronounced gift for mind-scorching imagery.

Virginia-born Sagan has lived for the last decade in Israel, where he's created numerous works for companies there and aboard. "Fire Sermon," to a Ligeti-like score by Claus Huber which ranges from chants and whispers to jagged cacophonous outbursts, calls for six men and five women. Two of the men are engaged throughout the work in alternating spasms of desire and hate.

The ensemble swirls across the stage in turbulent spins and leaps. Props and lighting intensify the portentous atmosphere. The whole thing is like some primal inferno, a stew of tortured carnality, violence and arcane ritual that remains naggingly unclear in purpose but is intermittently engrossing to watch.