The Feld Ballet got off to a prodigiously exhilarating start Monday evening at Wolf Trap, in the first of three programs marking the troupe's return to the area. The fare began with "Harbinger," the 1967 work for American Ballet Theatre that first put the ballet world on notice that a major new talent had arrived in the person of choreographer Eliot Feld, then still dancing with ABT. The program went on to include three rewarding Washington premieres sampling Feld's output of recent years.

The only down side to the occasion was the relatively limited turnout -- 1,600 according to the box office, in an amphitheater that can seat 3,000 under the shed alone. This was especially sobering in view of the whopping attendance for the Kirov Ballet at Wolf Trap a month ago.

What does it take for Americans to appreciate their own gifted artists as much as they do foreigners? Are we forever doomed to a national cultural inferiority complex, and a passive susceptibility to glitz and social hoopla as indices of artistic worth?

The questions aren't new -- their persistence is a measure of their difficulty -- but they are as troubling as ever. True, there were special reasons for interest in the Kirov, a prime wellspring of classical dance that hadn't been seen here in more than two decades.

But in an ideal world, Feld's allure would have been scarcely less. He's one of a handful of native American ballet choreographers who have achieved a firm historic footing, by extending, rather than simply rehashing, the traditions of the art. He hasn't been to Washington in four years, and he has been doing some of his most intriguing work in the interim. And his ballets are addressed not to an audience of sophisticates, but to anyone with an appetite for physical daring and exuberance, dramatic pungency, wit and expert craftsmanship. There was nothing forced or fake about the enthusiasm of those who did show up at Wolf Trap Monday.

Most indicative of the drift of Feld's recent work was "Medium: Rare," a bravura solo for James Sewell and one of a series of ballets Feld has made over the last year to the rhythmically invigorating, misleadingly termed "minimal" music of Steve Reich. The taped score for "Medium: Rare" consists of 12 jittery, overlapping whirligigs for flute (all played by Ransom Wilson), and everything about the dance solo is balletically unconventional, starting with Willa Kim's costume, a studded undershirt and cutout glove outfit suggesting a circus acrobat.

The allusion is apt, because Sewell goes on a nonstop jag of bounding and rebounding between a small trampoline and eight surrounding, steeply inclined ramps. Feld's choreographic gambit combines the formal rigor of permuted spatial and rhythmic patterns with an innovative use of virtuoso gymnastics -- brain and brawn in a conspicuously contemporary, unmistakably American mold.

Almost as far removed from ballet normalcy was "The Jig Is Up," the briskly infectious 1984 opus that concluded the program. "Jig" relates to a number of past Feld ballets inspired by folk dance and music from cultures as diverse as those of European Jews, Americans of the Southwest, Mexicans, Cubans and Scotch-Irish. In this case the recorded score is Celtic pipe, drum and choral music by the Bothy Band and John Cunningham, and the ballet presents a platoon of dancers in ragamuffin tatters and sneakers -- a community of low-life revelers who disport both as a unified ensemble and in smaller, soloistic units.

Limbs flap, flutter and swivel with a snap and joyful abandon that match the music's droning euphoria. There are particularly expressive solos for Gloria Brisbin and Cheryl Jones; a humorously bouncy number for seven men; and a becomingly jaunty trio for Timothy Cronin, Thomas Lemanski and guest artist Christine Sarry, former longtime star of the Feld company. The piece is an instructive example of the way Feld can personalize raw material as universal as folk dance.

Another work new to Washington was "Adieu," a poignant, quasidramatic essay in darkly tinged romanticism that recalls Feld's early Mahler ballet, "At Midnight." "Adieu" is set to Hugo Wolf songs with texts by Goethe, sensitively performed by soprano Renee Fleming and company pianist Peter Longiaru. The dance involves two couples (Lemanski and Sewell with Judith Denman and Allison Wade) in a dreamlike reverie with suggestions of death and mourning, youthful infatuation and frolic.

Lemanski is first seen, on a dimly lit stage, in a capacious dark cloak; it becomes a shroud and he the corpse, but later, Denman takes the place of the deceased one and Lemanski that of the bereaved. The couple in filmy white (Sewell and Wade) appear at times to be younger versions of Lemanski and Denman, and at others they are attendants from a spirit world. The resonant ambiguities are helped along by Feld's skill with props -- the cloak serves also as a raft, a picnic blanket and a hammock, among other things.

Newcomer Darren Gibson was outstanding in the engaging performance of "Harbinger," a deftly wrought neoclassic abstraction.