Some of the dancers expected to be on New York City Ballet's program last night were not, but Merrill Ashley made her first appearance of this Kennedy Center season as did "Who Cares?," a 9-year-old Balanchine work about which the fans have learned to care a lot.

It is in this sprightly, sentimental but seemingly slight piece to Gershwin songs that George Balanchine has drawn his most raffish equation between the Broadway musical and the Imperial Russian ballet.

For an instant he shows you a chorine with roses in her hair, the next moment it is Princess Aurora waking to a kiss, and both are Patricia McBride in the arms of Jacques d' Amboise, who suddenly becomes Balanchine's own Apollo with Karin von Aroldingen and Heather Watts as the other neoclassical muses, 19th-century fairies and Busby Berkeley beauties.

If you don't solve the references, you still see spirited dancing.

"Concerto Barocco," first on the bill, was crisp but why this year do gothic arches of Balanchine's choreography and the baroque altar of Bach's music elicit such sour faces from the cast?

In "Dances at a Gathering," Jerome Robbins' essay on the contours of the daylit first acts of old romantic ballets, Ashley moved with soft authority, and Helgi Tomasson, replacing the ailing Mikhail Baryshnikov, combined speed with dignity as the man who touches the dancing ground.