There wasn't a partridge or a pear tree in sight, but for the first day of Christmas the Feld Ballet did manage to bring us three caterpillars, a spider and a dozen very sprightly butterflies. The occasion was the Feld troupe's Kennedy Center debut last night, and the introduction of Eliot Feld's disarmingly fanciful and most recent opus, "Papillon."

"Papillon" reverberates with historial echoes. In 1860, the celebrated romantic-era ballerina Marie Taglioni -- the original Sylphide -- created a ballet of this title to a new score by Jacques Offenbach. Although Feld scrapped the Taglioni libretto, he does use the Offenbach music, and the resulting ballet rings a cluster of chimes anent balletic tradition.

Feld's fleet, fugitive winged creatures -- including not only 12 ballerina-butterflies but also 9 little butterflyettes (children from Feld's New York school) evoke the whole realm of wilis, sylphs and swans beloved of 19-century choreographers, not to mention the ample genre of insect ballets. The mockfey tone of "Papillon" reminds us too of Jerome Robbins' "Ma Mere L'Oye" ("Mother Goose"), and there's also more than a touch of the enchanted forest atmosphere of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The opening by wonderfully droll. As the brisk Offenbach overture works up stream, the doleful mien of a caterpillar (one of designer Willa Kim's many delightful costume constructions for the ballet) noses its way through the still closed curtains. Then the whole furtive thing slinks out, sniffs around in the orchestra pit and wiggles up into the curtain folds.

With the rise of the curtain, the ballet's exposition gives us a succession of visual bon-bons: a twinkling spiderweb backdrop; another two cuddly caterpillars; Leopold the butterfly-catcher, all in white, trailing his scoop net; a pretend-sinister spider, and finally, a queen butterfly and her fluttering host.

Thereafter things proceed along more or less "classical" lines -- several ballabiles (ensemble numbers) for the butterflies, with Leopold in hot pursuit, enframing a series of variations one to four dancers.

For the women, Feld has devised stretches, preenings and elbow-flapings that seem perfect for the requisite illusion, and the ballot as a whole conveys the intended spirit of amorous quest. But despite its considerable charm it does seem rather thin in substance. The music is skillful but forgettable, and all through it we're waiting for one lyric adagio for emotional release. When it arrives, however, Feld gives us not the tender Pas de deux that might turn the trick, but another mooning solo for Leopold.

All told, "Papillon" has something of an unconsummated feeling about it -- it's an entertaining and affectionate little parody that never quite gets to its point.

Feld chose to open his week's run at the Opera House with the more populist aspects of his repertory, and this too gave the evening a somewhat diluted air. The program began with "Harbinger," the 1967 ballet to Prokofiev's G Major Piano Concerto that launched Feld's choreographic Career. The musicality, taut construction and cleverness that caught the eye then are still in force, but a bland performance left one with more of a sense of promise than filfillment.

"A Footstep of Air," created in 1977 to Beethoven's folksong arrangements, seemed far stronger. It's comical view of rusticity is markedly original in many ways, and the ballet gives some of the company's outstanding dancers more of a chance to display their mettle -- most notably the excellent Christine Sarry, the very distinctive Edmund LaFusse and Feld himself, in his jovial vignette as a swordsman.

There's much more to come in the course of the week, including a munber of sides of Feld's talent that were barely hinted at this first time out, particularly in such gems as "Intermezzo," "la Vida" and "A Soldier's Tale."