Gelsey Kirkland and Antony Dowell assumed the roles of Clara and the Prince in American Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker" at Kennedy Center last night, and the pairing seemed as wondrous - perhaps more - as in "Don Quixote," earlier in the run.

It was a first for Dowell in the Baryshnikov production, and once again he found himself playing royalty. Hwy not?-he's to the manner born. As it used to with actor Leslie Howard, it takes an effort to see Dowell as anything other than aristocratic. It's in his princely tread, in his bearing, on the ground or in the air, and as he showed last night, it doesn't desert him in the midst of virtuoso fireworks.

He also got right into the spirit of the production, emphasizing the toy quality of the Nutcracker in Act I with a wittily exaggerated woodenness of step and gesture.

As for Kirkland, what can one say of this miracle of a dancer, whose every atom seems wing-borne, whose elfin limbs trace sonnets in the air? Something of childhood always lurks in Kirkland the woman, as it does in Marianna Tcherkassky, the original Clara of this version. In this role, however, in contrast to Tcherkassky (whose own interpretation is singularly beguiling), Kirkland lets the woman burst forth from the child.

In her first pas de deux with Dowell last night, after the princely transformation, she showed us, not so much a child's presentiment of adult emotion, but what Clara would actually be like in the full grip of romantic fervor.

Spurred by these qualities and the bond between them, Kirkland and Dowell, together with Alexandrer Minz as Drosselmeyer, made the culminating pas de trois of Act II as transporting a dance experience as any in memory. Somehow, the three found new nuances in the choreography, intensifying the bittersweet ache of these last moments of envisaged love.

Among many other memorable elements of a fine overall performance, there's room here only to single out one-let it be Johan Renvall, whose form and brilliance in the Russian Dance marked him as one to be closely watched.