When the American Ballet Theatre opens its three-week season at the Kennedy Center on April 1, principal dancer Kirk Peterson will be dancing another farewell to Washington. Peterson, 30, who was a leading dancer with Washington's now-defunct National Ballet, said in New York yesterday that he has been fired by Mikhail Baryshnikov -- ABT's incoming artistic director.

Peterson said that he met with Baryshnikov last Saturday, and "he fired me. He said, 'I don't want to have anything to do with you.'" Peterson will dance with the company through the end of its current tour, which ends July 12.

A spokesman or Baryshnikov declined to comment, but ABT officials confirmed that the new artistic director has already begun making artistic changes in the company and that five dancers, including Peterson, were warned that they may not be rehired next season.

According to Peterson, Baryshnikov said only that "he felt very strongly that I wouldn't fit in at ABT. I just sort of sat there with my mouth open" in disbelief. Peterson has danced many leading roles with ABT, including those in such full-length ballets as "The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "La Sylphide."

"It makes one feel bitter when a non-American can come into an American company and wield the ax like that," said Peterson.An ABT official took issue with Peterson's account, however, saying that "to say he was fired is not correct" because he was only warned that his contract may not be renewed.

Under the new contract between ABT and its dancers, management has to give a dancer warning that his or her contract may not be renewed, state the reason for such nonrenewal and then allow the dancer eight weeks to correct any artistic insufficiencies.

After the eight weeks, if management has not changed its opinion, another eight weeks' notice must be given and the dancer may appeal to a mediation board consisting of other dancers.

Since there are only 16 weeks left during the ABT's current season, the deadline for warnings expired last weekend, and no more warnings or "firings" are expected.

Peterson, however, claimed that Baryshnikov disregarded the warning proviso of the contract and simply gave him notice of termination.