We ballet enthusiasts had our April Fool's Day, thank you, back in December, when American Ballet Theatre was obliged to cancel its annual winter series here due to stalled contract negotiations. There was, therefore, a special feeling of joyousness pervading the Kennedy Center Opera House last night when the company -- its disputes settled, its wounds healed, its elegance and glamor rekindled -- began a three-week engagement for an SRO crowd.

One could sense a welcoming warmth enveloping the hall, fueled by relief and gratitude. Ballet in the grand manner may not be all there is to the dance universe, but there's nothing quite like it, and only a precious few outfits in the world have the resources, artistic and otherwise, to cultivate it. ABT was here again, and it was great to have them back at last.

Under the circumstances, it would be a double pleasure to report that the evening was also an artistic triumph of the first order. But the truth, alas, is otherwise, however curmudgeonly it may seem to mention it. With a single exception, nothing on the program went as well as it might have or should have. Perhaps that's not too awfully surprising. The fact is the dancers were off the stage for a long, debilitating period. They had thereafter a minimum of preparation for an extended and tiring tour. Besides, according to Perversnik's Law of Excessive Expectations, it was highly unlikely that this opening night could match our inflated hopes for it.

There was, for example, George Balachine's "Theme and Variations" at the close of the program, bringing us the Washington debut of former Bolshoi star Alexander Godunov. As it happens, it was also the first appearance in this ballet for the tall, blond virtuoso. But what an odd choice it seemed -- a work of transcendent challenge in an idiom wholly at odds with Gudunov's background and bearing.

Inevitably, the performance showed him in a far less than flattering light. There's little question that Godunov is a dancer of exceptional technical command and distinctive presence. He has had, however, neither the time nor experience to allow for mastery of the extremely demanding Balanchine style, with its exacting requirements of speed, carriage, phrasing, incisiveness and musical sensibility. He looked uncomfortable -- terrified, really -- and out of place, which he was. It was like watching someone trying on an overcoat seven sizes too large, wriggling around in it to get it somehow to hang right and succeeding only in betraying the awkwardness of the effort. The contrast of the poise and patrician aplomb of ballerina Matine van Hamel, as well as the seeming lack of connection between the partners, made matters all the worse.

Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, at this point in history, owe us no further proof of their supremacy as artists, but they too had a rough night of it in their performance of Jerome Robbins' "Other Dances." Despite sporadic felicities elsewhere, only Dowell's first solo seemed entirely in gear, as fluent, impetuous and carefree as one might anticipate. Makarovas not only danced shakily, but was rarely in phase with the pianist, Boyd Staplin, who had his own surprising troubles with the Chopin scores.

There was much to admire in the account of Antony Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas," particularly in the full-b looded portrayals of principals Kevin McKenzie, Richard Schafer and Van Hamel. But the ballet failed to muster its usual dramatic and emotional points, largely because of Lise Houlton's pallid Caroline. Her fragility and fey look suit her well to the role, but last night she seemed more a sleepwalker than a woman condemned to a loveless marriage.

Paradoxically, then, it was the least substantial work on the program that provided the most satisfying dancing. Daniel Levans' new "Concert Waltzes," to music by Glazunov, however tasteful and orderly, is thin stuff -- a bland aperitif of a ballet. But Marianna Tcherkassky and Patrick Bissell, as the leads, along with Hilda Morales, Johan Renvall, Warren Conover and an excellent supporting ensemble, danced it with such suave vivacity that the effect went beyond charm to enchantment.