They are professionals, so in the grand old tradition of theater the show went on. But after the curtain came down, the layoff began.

It was hardly the kind of finale the Capitol Ballet Company had envisioned for its Kennedy Center debut last night. At a post-performance reception, hosted by Turkish Ambassador and Mrs. Sukru Elkedag at their 23rd Street NW embassy, artistic director Keith Lee expressed his disappointment.

"It's been a struggle, but the company stuck together even though we've literally had no funding," said Lee, the talented dancer who was formerly with American Ballet Theater and came here two years ago to take over the company.

With 12 dancers and an apprentice, all on salary, Lee said three weeks have gone by without paychecks for his troupe.

"It's happened thousands of times to dance companies around the country; you work hard to get to this plateau then it collapses. You get the feeling that people don't care. I don't know if it's a southern attitude," Lee said, "or a racial thing, or just what it is."

Founded in 1964, the company was an outgrowth of the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet and one of the few in the country to provide black dancers a classical training vehicle.

Tina Watson, whose husband Jack is a presidential assistant, said she became excited about the company while serving as a judge for the Washington Society of Performing Arts which was screening 40 companies for next spring's dance festival.

"It's just splendid," said Watson, herself a dancer with Atlanta Ballet and the Carl Ratcliff Dance Theater which she helped found. "The word just has to get out to this city about the company."

Evelyn Woolston, executive director, said that despite a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a $25,000 loan from the Expansion Arts, the company's $7,000 payroll every two weeks doesn't take long to lower the bank balance to crisis level.

"This company represents this city," said Woolston.

About 200 guests who attended the benefit performance went on to the embassy, a palatial mansion completed in 1915 for Edward Hamlin Everett, America's "bottle top king." The dwelling was bought in 1935 by the Turkish government for $200,000.

The benefit was expected to garner an estimated $15,000, half of which will go to the ballet. Or, as somebody pointed out the equivalent of two weeks back pay for the dance company.