The evening began promisingly enough. Ballet Hispanico of New York opened its program at Tawes Theatre last night with Jose Coronado's "Fiesta en Vera Cruz," a zesty character dance that introduced the company in a swirl of skirts and a swish of fans. His staging of the folk-traditional "Deer Dance" which followed provided juicy roles for two young men (Eugene Roscoe as the Deer and Arthur DeLorenzo as the Hunter), which they handled well. If both works exposed the company's youth and lack of polish, they also showcased its spirit and sense of stagecraft. Ballet Hispanico seemed different, a far cry from the usual pastel-pretty, derivative "regional" company.

But in the four dances that followed, all by "name" choreographers (Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Talley Beatty, Vincente Nebrada and Geoffrey Holder), Ballet Hispanico's identity became muddled. It looked like any other company--most particularly, it looked like a junior Spanish-flavored Alvin Ailey offshoot. Not only was the choreography for these works uniformly undistinguished but it used the dancers ungratefully.

Taylor-Corbett's "Stepping Stones," created for the company, is a helter-skelter arrangement of steps to no apparent purpose. Worse, the dancers looked stiff, their technique overstretched. Beatty's "The Street Dancer," a disco number obviously designed to be the fun, crowd-pleaser, perverted the dancers' curious combination of energy and languor into a frantic lethargy. The score (a "disco collage") pounded away, suggesting a high-voltage frolic, but the choreography never built up steam, cutting off the dancers' energy in mid-phrase. "Street Dancer" is framed by kids playing street games, but characterizations hinted at in these sequences never developed in the dance.

Nebrada's "Lamentos," also specially created for the company, was the program's "meaningful" work and was bizarre. Picture a Pieta in which the corpse rises to partner the mourner at about four turns or lifts per beat and you have a pretty accurate idea what went on in this lament. Hilda Morales, guest artist from ABT, suffered gamely through both the partnering and the dance.

Holder's dances are often fashion shows and his "Danse Creole," which ended the evening, was the most stylishly dressed of the company's offerings. The women wore white dresses with black stripes on the skirts, showing off their red tights when they turned. Perhaps this was why the choreography consisted mostly of turns.

Ballet Hispanico's eager young dancers deserve better than this. Nearly all small companies (and some big ones) are caught in the choreographer squeeze, an international epidemic caused by a proliferation of companies and dancers that far outstrips the choreographic talent needed to feed them, and Ballet Hispanico has obviously made an attempt to use established choreographers. The dancers have a raw energy and unusual talent for character dancing that could be exploited. They need coaching in costume handling and technical polishing, but there's a sincerity and rare dramatic commitment about them that is terribly appealing. The company needs to look at other "Stepping Stones."