The Joffrey Ballet programs for its just-ended visit to the Kennedy Center Opera House described the rising arc of a crescendo.

The gem of the first program was "Passages," a ballet of rapturously devotional character by Canadian choreographer James Kudelka. The second, overly long program was bolstered by Laura Dean's brilliant new "Force Field." Best of all was the last, which I caught in its second performance Saturday afternoon.

It contained Paul Taylor's sublime "Arden Court" and one of Gerald Arpino's most durable company showcases, "Kettentanz." But the surprise trump card was yet another ballet by Kudelka -- "The Heart of the Matter," set to Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto.

It may be premature to hail Kudelka as Schumann did the young Chopin ("Hats off, gentleman -- a genius!"), but given the notorious and chronic drought of classically based ballet choreographers, it's an extremely hopeful sign to have seen two such inspired works within a single week.

Kudelka is no raw beginner -- he's made more than a dozen works for the National Ballet of Canada alone. Once again Robert Joffrey has taken the lead in choosing a rising talent ready for such exposure -- as he's done with Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Choo San Goh, Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe.

"The Heart of the Matter," for 20 dancers led by Philip Jerry and Denise Jackson, deals with the eternal war of the sexes -- as suggested by an archly cynical Dorothy Parker verse appended to the title, about romantic duplicity. The choreography evokes Tudor and Ashton in the way it uses subtleties of music and movement to illuminate character and social pathology. But it doesn't look derivative -- it's rampant with original, shrewdly insightful touches.

In the first of four movements, we're introduced to an insolently swaying ensemble of condescending males, and a coolly impassive brigade of females who stride, stiff-armed, past them. Then we meet Jackson and Jerry, who circle each other warily, never making contact (the theme of the ballet); by the movement's end, they're "dancing" together, but at arm's length. The second, presto movement shows six men doing their own show-off thing. The third gives us the women alone, displaying their teasing hauteur.

The tour de force is the very extended pas de deux that opens the last movement. Jerry and Jackson dash at each other as if they were tilting lances. When they at length join hands, their heads and torsos bend away from each other. The duet takes down the wall between them brick by brick, and we feel them yielding, against themselves. When they finally merge in a kiss, the earth just about does move, until the swarming ensembles re-enter and draw them back into separateness for the final, chilling tableau.

It's a remarkable ballet, the more so for the self-confident unfolding of its choreographic form. The work stretches Joffrey veterans Jackson and Jerry to new heights of expressive power, and the entire cast catches fire as well. Other factors abetting the impact were Santo Loquasto's muted costumes, Thomas Skelton's masterly lighting, and the performance of the Prokofiev under Allan Lewis' direction, with Stanley Babin as the piano soloist.

The Joffrey dancers distinguished themselves as well in "Arden Court," fazed now and then by Taylor's technical demands, but admirably responsive to the musical and emotional amplitude of the choreography. "Kettentanz," set to gallops, waltzes and polkas by Strauss and Mayer, is one of the rare Arpino ballets in which the dancers have time to cleanly execute, and the audience has time to see, the steps. Leslie Carothers, Dawn Caccamo, Tina LeBlanc, Mark Goldweber, Glenn Edgerton and David Palmer were outstanding in the fine cast.