Choreographer Eliot Field has always maintained a relatively small troupe as ballet goes -- with some two dozen dancers, the present Feld Ballet is as large as it's ever been -- and he's never gone in for big, elaborate productions. Many of his creations make do with minimal decor. Yet Feld has a theatrical streak a mile wide, and his feeling for the theater aspects of ballet -- particularly the evocation of character, place and mood -- is prominent throughout his work.

It's no surprise, then, that he should prove so brilliant a conjurer of histrionic atmosphere in his new "Scenes for the Theater," set in Aaron Copland's 1925 score, "Music for the Theatre," and making its local premiere at the Kennedy Center last night. He has some marvelous collaborators in designer Willa Kim, whose stylized girders, street lamps and barstools summon up the time and locale so poignantly, and lighting designer John H. Paull III, who manages to suggest the impersonal glare and shadows of a metropolis with unobtrusive means. But Feld's acutely observed movement pictures -- drawn from life, so to speak, rather than conventional dance motifs -- are the heart of the matter.

The ballet is literally a collection of scenes -- stills that move. The setting is the Depression-era world of the Odets plays, and Feld peoples it with archetypes -- a young man on the skids, a cop, a newsboy, kids playing games, an upper-crust family with a baby carriage and a French poodle (hilariously impersonated by Mary Randolph), a blue-collared trio, and a hustling "city slicker" (field himself, in one of his pungent dance portraits), among others.

The locus changes from street to barroom to backstage (for a saucy bit involving a stripper, convincingly portrayed by Cheryl Jones, and a burlesque comic, John Sowinski) but nothing much happens. "Scenes" really belongs with "La Vida" and other similar Feld ventures in impressionism. It's got much in common with Alvin Ailvey's remarkable "Masekela Language" in method, but unlike the latter, the Feld ballet never flares into crisis or incident -- it's theater, but not drama, and as such it somehow lacks a center, for all the ingenuity and appeal of the imagery, and the persuasiveness of performances.

Also on the program was the Washington premiere of "Meadowlark," a distinctly minor, early (1968) effort involving rustic romance and excessive whimsy, and the splendid "A Footstep of Air," which, however, received a rather listless performance.