The good news is that the Capitol Ballet, one of Washington's most rightly cherished dance institutions for a decade and a half, is back in harness again after a layoff of many months due to funding shortages. During last night's performance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, moreover -- a benefit for the company itself and Washington Pre-Schools Inc. -- announcements from the stage indicated that some new federal grants and prospects may save the troupe from the kind of instability it was forced to endure this past year. t

The bad news is that the artistic identity problems which have plagued the troupe sporadically in the past appear to be prominently in the foreground again. Last night's program showed us a company with more than sufficient performing muscle, but also disturbingly nebulous in esthetic profile.

Of the 12 dancers seen last night, only four remain from the company's last appearances in December of 1979. The others -- an attractive, spirited, well-trained group -- were recruited from among out-of-town professionals by assistant artistic director, Keith Lee, who joined Capitol Ballet two years ago and has been mainly responsible for both choreography and policy since. The vivacity, versatility and evident prowness of the dancers were unquestionably the evening's greatest asset, with special honors due to Sandra Fortune and Florin Scarlat.

Now, skin color has about as much to do with artistic merit as eye color -- which is to say, nothing at all -- and the Capitol has always been a multiracial troupe. On the other hand, now that non-black dancers are in a decided majority, one cannot help but wonder where this leaves the historic role of the company as a proving ground and launching pad for gifted black youth who sought apprenticeship in classical ballet, and who had next to nowhere to go for it in the entire country save here and Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theater of Harlem.

Another major problem concerns repertory. Lee chose a program of three new works by himself for the reentry, a decision which was admirably venturesome but perhaps unnecessarily hazardous. Under the circumstances, maybe it would have been shrewder to include at least one piece of proven worth, say Lee's own "Seacoast Sketches," or "Nearer to Thee," or artistic director-founder Doris Jones' "Rhapsody in Blue."

As it was, all three premiers fell rather flat on the eye, except for isolated moments of compelling vision or impulse. Lee didn't lack for concepts -- a kind of impassioned elegy in "Dances of a Personal Nature" (dedicated to the memory of his brother); the fervid spirit of gospel in "Hymn"; and the pervasive, if superficial, imagery of flight in "Signals for Take-off." But he seems to have been unable to sustain these ideas with anything fresh or cohesive in the way of movement, falling back instead on cliches (vibrating hands, erotic posturings, wheeling arms) and a rehash of tired material from Fosse, Ailey and Tetley, all rather patchily organized. We know from his previous efforts that Lee has choreographic gifts which were hardly in evidence last night; perhaps he was just going through a fallow period -- it happens. In any case, the company would seem to have some thorny problems ahead if it is to retain and amplify its traditional status.