I LIKE NOW. George Balanchine declared. "So many people I know," he explained, "want always to remember things, the good old times. They look back, they have regrets. Even Barbara Karinska (costume designer for Balachine's New York City Ballet and a longtime friend) a hundred times she tells me the same stories about how it was, how it could have been. The older she gets, the more she's in the past.

"I dont't do this" the 74 year old choreographer said. "Everything in the past is the same to me, I don't care about it. I like now."

It is easy enough to see that Balanchine means what he says. He has been making ballets for over 53 years, but this head is full of today - rehearsing the company in the two strikingly different works he has already created this year. "Ballo della Regina" and "Kammermusk No.2, " and pondering his forthcoming "Tricolore," which he was itching to get into during the Washington engagement.

Balanchine is a colorful enough figure as a man to answer the common image of the artistic ego. He's an engaging conversationalist, with a penchant for whimsical bravads. He likes western-style shirts and prefers bandanas to ties. And he's enough of a "character" to have inspired innumerable clandestine imitations of his speech and gestural mannerisms by associates.

But Balanchine's life style affords him scanty public exposure. He leads the spartan, hermerically closered existence of the obsessively dedicated. His current daily routine - in the company studios all day, rehearsing, coaching and choreographing , in the theater at night, overseeing virtually every performance of his beloved trouphas remained unchanged for decades. A very little else - music and books, mostly - takes up whatever slack there is.

Even his personal relationships have been but extensions and emanations of his artistic core. His five wives and other romantic liasons were all dancers, as much the focus of his creative and performing enterprises as they were objects of affection; and the same has been true of other intimates, such as Kirstein and Stravinsky, who havc shared his artistic dreams.

For Balanchine, there literally has never been any separation between life and art. His "real self" has been wholly invested in work, his ballets. Inevitably, his awesomely ramified oeuvre, by turns sublime, cheeky, tender, volatile, florid, austere, sensual, mechanistic, ethereal, seems to encompass infinitely more dimensions than Balanchine the man would lead one to infer. Perhaps that's because his "personality" - offhand, opinionated, jesting, alternately prideful and humble - is a role he unconsciously assumes for public coumption, a mask for meeting the need for worldly intercourse without giving away a jot of the confidential fantasies that produced an "Apollo," an "Agon," or a "Liebeslieder Waltzes," the world where he actually lives.

For Balanchine himself, the traces of his career in the sands of time may hold little fascination. But the rest of us, washing as it contunues to unfold, can't help being intrigued, since as major part of his contribution has been an extraordinary melding of the past and the future of choreographic art.

Though he still has detractors, Balanchine is unarguable a creative giant of our age. He comes by this standing through his stylistic and technical innovations, and the special personal cachet he brings to dance composition, and partly through sheer productivity. Only Frederick Ashton, among contemporaries, comes close to rivaling the vast Balanchine output of nearly 160 ballets, not to mention the slew of films, musicals and operas he has choreographed.

It is the astonishing range of his imagination that is so impressive: pure abstractions like "Symphony in C," "Concerto Barocco" and "Jewels",thematically conceived works like "Apollo," "Scotch Symphony" and "Vienna Waltzes"; romatic effusions like "Meditation"; virtuosic bonbons like "Tarantella"; "story ballets" like "Prodigal Son" and "Midsummer Night's Dream"; daring modernizations like "Episodes" and "Agon"; recensions of traditional staples like "Nutracker" and "Coppelia"; and such oddments as his elephant ballet, "Circus Polka," for Ringling Bros.

In the diversity is a merging of opposites - the blending of Old World and New, of the Russo-European tradition of pomp and refinement with the raw energy of America, of the classical fundamentals of ballet science with the fission and atomization of modern esthetics.Reared in Russia across the years of the Soviet Revolution, nurtured to artistic maturity in France and England and then permanently established in the United States, Balanchine was uniquely fitted by history to join the disparate strands of abllet art into a grand, novel unity.

The spark may have been jazz, the invention of black Americans, Balanchine's partnership with Stravinsky and other composers, like Ravel, Milhaud and Anthell, who were bitten by the jazz bug in the '20s, and his own creative involvement with American show-biz on Broadway and in Hollywood, left an imprint on all his later endeavors.

These contacts of Balanchine's resulted eventually in some ballets of specific jazz reference - "Modern Jazz: Variants," for instance, with a score by Gunther Schuller; "Jazz Concert: Ragtime," to Stravinsky; and his Gershwin piece, "Who cares?" But far more significant was the way the underlying qualities of jazz, its rhythmic energies and jaunty synocpations, entered into his bloodstream.

Balanchine helped to "Americanize" classical ballet not by injecting jazz into it, but by giving ballet itself, its steps and shapes and tempos, a jazzy veneer. Like a crop of native American choreographers, including Agnes de Mille, Eugene Loring, Ruth Page, Lew Christensen and Jerome Robbins, Balanchine turned to the popular lore of his adopted country for inspiration, in ballets like "Western Symphony," "Stars and Stripes" and "Square Dance.

But what's most American about Balanchine's choreography is its sense of speed, action, wit and efficiency, along with a very unclassical regard for American vernacular forms.

Ray Bolger, who starred in the first Broadway musical Balanchine choreographed, "On Your Toes" in 1936, and worked with him in several other shows thereafter, once remarked that taking direction from Juilliard to the Louvre to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to Stillman's Gymnasium."

Balanchine's penchant for velocity and athleticism also dictated the profile of his dancers. Lincoln Kirsterin, the Boston intellectual brahmin who brought Balanchine to the United States and helped to found and nurture both his school and his company, said recently that "Balanchine has not only extended the potential of the human body, but accelerated the classical ballet beyond all imagining. SO he's always sought out a particular kind of body, long-legged, lean straight-backed - the streamlined look."

At the same time, Balanchine, whose English is still unmistakably flavored with borscht, never denied or ceased exploring his Russian roots. Marius Petipa, the imposing figurehead who dominated Russian imperial ballet at the close of the 19th century, retired as director of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky ballet the year before Balanchine was born, but the traditon he represented was still very much alive during Balanchine's years as a student and apprentice dancer with the same outfit.

The profound mark this left on him eminently visible not only in his reinterpretations of such Petipa classics as "Coppelia," or in such obvious tributes as the "Diamonds" section of "Jewels," but also in his fastidious step combinations and love for geometric ensembles in ballets having no evident connection with Russian practice.

Balanchine made his own stage debut in the St. Petersburg production of "Sleeping beauty," and the memory of its theatrical munificence still haunts him.If he has never mounted his own version, it is mainly because nothing could match this childhood vision.

"Everybody asks me about it," he says, "and I ask myself. But it's impossible to do it without an enormous stage, we don't have a stage big enough. You have to have a forest growing out of the floor , and so many things. When the Fairy leads the Prince to the Sleeping Beauty, at the Maryinsky there were about eight wings, each one on rollers, the whole thing moving this way and this way, in depth.

"During the long Prologue, nothing but a march really, we had people coming out, coming out, so many supers, it was like the Folies Bergeres. And the whole production was girls, not these men they put in nowadays with their silly double air turns and lifts, it's disgusting. And at the end was a waterfall, with real water falling. Who can do this now? How can anyone afford to?"

Balanchine has also a profound understanding of music. His father was a composer, and so too his brother Andrei. Balanchine studied piano as a child, and still nourishes his considerable score reading facility daily. He's immensely proud of the New York City Ballet Orchestra. They play scores by Stravinsky, by Schoenberg, by Webern no other orchestra plays," he notes. "I always say, if you don't like ballet, you can always close your eyes and listen to the music."

And he has an uncanny gift for uncovering the dynamic logic of even the most forbidding musical idioms. Stravinsky once wrote of a performance of Balanchine's "Movements for Piano and Orchestra" to his own knotty score that to see Balanchine's choreography was "to hear the music with one's eyes . . . the choreographer emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware . . . and the performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result."

Balanchine readily admits that not all music can serve as grist for his choreographic mill. "Honegger, for instance," he says. "Not my cup of tea. There's nothing wrong with his music, but I couldn't do it. Some tea I just don't like - real green, smoky tea. I don't like any tea that has flowers in it. I like tea that is tea, like in Russia. Brahms, there are many things I couldn't do. It's so awful to see what they do to his Piano Concerto, the B Flat, for example. They can't put you in jail for it, so people go right ahead. But I know, some things I cannot do."

His aversion to "stars" is also well known, a manifestation of the New York City Ballet philosophy that dance, though it is ineradicably dependent on dancers, should not be subservient to them. "Yes, Baryshnikov is a marvelous dancer," he says, "the best technician we have. But what would he do in our company, we have nothing for him, and no partner, they're all too tall. Besides, the public would scream if he wasn't doing those jumps and lifts all the time.

"Once, in London, I staged my 'Ballet Imperial' for Margot Fonteyn. How dare you do such a lousy ballet for Fonteyn, the critics all yelled, because it wasn't made to show her off in the usual way. It just doesn't work."

Balanchine also has little concern for theoretical interpretations or readings of his ballets. "My 'Apollo,' for example - they said it was the begining of something new - neo-classicism. You read all these things, I was influenced by this, by that. But I have never been influenced by theory. I hadon't think that way. If I started planning ahead what a ballet should be theoretically, I wouldn't be able to do anything. We are not clever, we are not great calculators. We are simple people. We dance." This credo of the instinctive artist ties in too with his recognition of himself as a visual, as opposed to a verbal, person. "I am not a words man, absolutely not," he says. "I have only eyes and ears."

Is it conceivable that anyone could ever "replace" this colossus in years to come? Speculation on possible "successors" has been rampant in the ballet world for some time. Lincoln Kirstein, who knows Balanchine and the company's needs better than anyone, seems to be looking in the direction of Peter Martins, the troupe's superb Danish principal, who has just begun trying out his choreographic wings with a piece called "Calcium Light Night" to the music of Ives - it will be staged in Washington during the company's next visit. "Peter has the qualities," Kirstein says."He's got an extraordinary analytical intelligence, wonderful authority and a strict sense of discipline. He's musical, warm and generous. And he understands Balanchine down to the ground, one of the few who do. What exactly he would want to do I don't know, he's not telling anybody - but Peter can do anything he sets his mind to."

In the meanwhile, Balanchine, who prides himself on his Georgian hardiness, gives no sign of flagging energy or imagination. "He's full of perversity," kirstein days. "Nothing he does would surprise me. Like the 'Vienna Waltzes,' for instance. All the highbrows in New York were scandalized by it - 'Merry Widow?" they said, what kitsch! But he's raped the musical repertory, and I think he misses having a Stravinsky around. He lacks a collaborator, so much came from that partnership with Stravinsky.

'Right now he's on a Hindemith kick. The new 'Kammermusic No. 2' is a key work, he's pushing way past what he's done before. George says it's a computer, it gives you a sense of computerization. It's strange, savage, hard and very, very fast - it moves like a basketball team. And so many new steps - I don't see how the dancers possibly remember it all."