Gelsey Kirkland, the ballerina the American Ballet Theatre fired with much fanfare last December, appears about to accept an offer by ABT artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov to return to the company.

An agreement was reached in principle between Kirkland and ABT late last week, and a contract is expected to be signed within a few days, according to sources close to both ABT and Kirkland. Kirkland, however, came very close to signing a contract recently, but decided not to

Some ABT officials hope that Kirkland will rejoin the company and begin performing before the troupe's Washington run ends on April 12, but sources close to Kirkland say the ballerina anticipates she will perform with ABT only after it begins its eight-week New York run on April 20.

ABT executive director Herman Krawitz yesterday confirmed that "we're in the process of rehiring Gelsey Kirkland." Asked when Kirkland would give her first performance, Krawitz said, "soon."

Krawitz declined commend on other aspects of the decision to rehire the ballerina -- a dancer considered by many to be America's greatest ballerina -- except to say that "it's our function to have great artists in the company." -

Kirkland could not be reached for comment but a source close to her said that "Gelsey's problems with ABT have been worked out."

Among those problems had been Kirkland's decision not to appear for a number of scheduled rehearsals, including a dress rehearsal with full orchestra just prior to ABT's fall season at the Kennedy Center last December.

After her failure to appear, Kirkland and her frequent companion, then-ABT principal dancer Patrick Bissell, were fired.

Bissell, meanwhile, has said that he expects to be rehired by ABT soon. But no decision on his return has yet been made, sources close to both Bissell and ABT said.

In the interim since she was discharged from ABT, Kirkland reneged on a guest engagement she had contracted for -- an incident that fueled speculation on whether ABT could ever satisfy itself as to her professional reliability in the future. On March 15, she and Bissell had been scheduled to dance at Goucher College as guest artists with the Tidewater Ballet of Norfolk. Both artists showed up, but after delaying the start of the program for more than an hour, Kirkland refused to perform and left the theater.

Kirkland's apparent acceptance of ABT's offer comes on Baryshnikov's third try. The first offer came several weeks ago, the second on March 28.

After she turned down the March 28 proposal, Kirkland said she was uncertain what response a third offer to her would elicit.

Some sources within ABT suggested Baryshnikov felt his recent on-stage partnerships with various female dancers had failed to match the magic, electricity and artistic quality of his partnership with Kirkland.

Baryshnikov could not be reached for comment.

But other observers pointed to ABT's need to sell tickets at the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House in New York for performances when Baryshnikov is not dancing. Kirkland is considered a "guaranteed sell," that is, she will sell out every performance she gives. Few of the artists on ABT's roster this season are such guaranteed sellouts in Manhattan, where ABT, which charges $35 a ticket for the best orchestra seats, is in direct competition with the New York City Ballet.

The NYCB's top ticket price for prime orchestra seats is only $17.

Last week, Kirkland spoke of her then-current decision not to accept Baryshnikov's offer to return to ABT, saying, "I have gone between 'yes' and No,' 'yes' and 'no' . . . I really hope something can be worked out. I would like to return soon."

As for her December discharge, she said, "Obviously, it was something they had to do." Asked if she would have fired Baryshnikov had their positions been reversed, Kirkland laughed and said, "Sure! . . . No. No. I would have worked it out." Since then, apparently she and Baryshnikov have worked it out.