First off, let it be noted that the New York City Ballet gave us last night one of its most consistently splendid evenings thus far in its current Kennedy Center visit. It got a large boost from a program that included not only another showing of Jerome Robbins' "The Dreamer," led by Patricia McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Balanchine's spellbinding "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," but also the first Washington performance of Peter Martins' freshly minted "Giardino di Scarlatti."

Martins, long one of the company's leading dancers, has begun to turn his hand to choreography only in recent seasons: on last night's evidence, he had a pronounced gift for it. "Giardino" is an immediately engaging, deftly shaped ballet for a lead couple and four other pairs of dancers who jointly celebrate the pleasures both of dancing and of youthful companionship.

It's no small measure of the artfulness of "Giardino" that it looked as good as it did last night among the prepossessing choreographic company it kept -- if a ballet holds up against Balanchine and Robbins, you know it's something.

The music consists of 11 keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, that rococo master who knew the secret of Schweppervescence -- musically speaking -- ere ever a soda in bottle was put. Having the pianist (the excellent Gordon Boelzner last night) on stage lends a modern, befittingly casual touch. The keyword of the title, "giardino," which is Italian for "garden," is evoked not only by the sunny dances, but also by Ben Benson's comely costumes (faintly rustic and faintly histerical in springtime astels) and David Hays' grillwork set (suggesting a palazzo courtyard).

Not surprisingly, Martins' chorepgraphy reflects the two major influences on his own career -- George Balanchine, ballet master of the NYCB, and August Bournonville, the 19th-century patron saint of the Royal Danish Ballet, which was Martins' former roost. The Bournonville touch is mostly a matter of flavor -- the dance combinations are not those of the Bournonville canon, but the emphasis on lightness of step, intricate footwork and delicate embellishment are marks of the style. The Balanchine influence is more up front, in the lucid formality of design, the constant musical awareness, the speed and brilliance of the ballet.

"Giardino" begins in ceremonious euphoria, as the dancers present themselves courteously to the audience; thereafter, and through each succeeding sonata, the focus is on couples or groups of couples. Throughout the ballet, one has the impression that the airy choreographic embroidery flows easily and naturally from the music. In some of the earlier sections -- the third sonata for two males, for instance -- the effect is overly breathless, as if there are too many steps for feet to articulate or eyes to see clearly. But elsewhere the balance between activity and repose seems just right, and especially so in the lyric, wistful duet for the expert lead couple -- Bart Cook and Heather Watts -- in the ninth sonata.

If there's anything missing here, it's an extra bit of esthetic daring. "Giardino" discloses how well Martins has mastered "the rules." What would take him to the next level would be that"forbidden" intrusion of fantasy or surprise that stretches not only the rules but one's imagination. In any case, this first exposure left in its wake the desire to see not only "Giardino" again, but also earlier and future Martins creations.

If "The Dreamer" seemed more compelling this time around than on opening night, this was partly due to increased familiarity with the work itself, which has much to reveal, and partly to the dancing of Baryshnikov, whose involvement in the role seemed even deeper and more concentrated.

Th "Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3," particularly the first three movements, also received a highly charged performance.