IF EVER A dance company could unite the differing worlds of rock and ballet, the Joffrey Ballet is it. Though artistic director Gerald Arpino, 65, doesn't get around to the discos much anymore ("I used to be a wild one, dear," he confides), he's hip to today's tunes. After listening to the blood-pumping music of Prince Rogers Nelson (better known by his stage name, Prince) over coffee at the home of choreographer Peter Pucci, Arpino decided to launch a full-length rock ballet to 13 songs by the flamboyant composer and bad-boy lyricist, from such platinum albums as "Purple Rain" and "Diamonds and Pearls." The idea became "Billboards," presented on the final leg of the troupe's upcoming one-week run at the Kennedy Center.
Many ballet companies try to stretch in two directions, both reviving past works and creating or commissioning new ones, but no troupe possesses quite the flexibility of the Joffrey Ballet. This company has become known for its painstaking and powerful recreations of lost masterpieces -- such as Nijinsky's 1913 "The Rite of Spring" -- as well as its up-to-the-minute contemporary repertoire that draws on pop culture and current events. But even by Joffrey standards, the company's appearance here, beginning Tuesday, knocks one's expectations of ballet into another realm.
The week opens with revivals of Leonide Massine's 1933 "Les Presages," set to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, and his 1917 "Parade" (with a whimsical cubist decor by Picasso), positioned against three contemporary works: Laura Dean's abstract "Structure" and "Light Field," and Pucci's paean to Native Americans, "Moon of the Falling Leaves." The four-part "Billboards," with sections by Dean, Pucci, Charles Moulton and Margo Sappington, runs June 4 to 6.
Arpino produced "Billboards" in a pinch, when mounting Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella" became too costly. "I've always been intrigued by billboards," he says. "They're the art of the people." One of the company's original six dancers at its inception in 1956, Arpino developed an eye for the roadside canvases during the troupe's early cross-country tours by station wagon.
Prince had wanted the Joffrey to use his music after seeing a performance -- his first visit to a ballet -- in 1991, and he wrote an extended version of "Thunder" expressly for the company's use. With Arpino's urban-folk art theme, the fit seemed perfect. "This crosses over the generation gap," Arpino says. "It's not the Andrews Sisters, it's not Frank Sinatra, it's not Billy Eckstine -- it's now."
THE JOFFFREY BALLET -- mixed program, Tuesday through Thursday at 8; "Billboards," June 4 at 8, June 5 at 2 and 8, June 6 at 2, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202/467-4600.