It's hard to be polite, much less kind, about the Poughkeepsie Ballet Theatre. Although it's admirable to give a chance to American regional companies, exposing fledgling troupes can be cruel to unfinished dancers, not to mention the audience.

The Poughkeepsie is a small company whose young men are technically unproficient and whose young women show promise. But if they only get to dance the kind of ballets presented last night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, it's not easy to believe they'll ever develop into artists.

Artistic Director Gilbert Reed's choreography, which made up the bulk of the program, consists of endless combinations of classroom steps. Watching it is like listening to symphonies composed only of scales. His dramatic ballets are trite renditions of themes done to death long ago. In "Vignettes Grotesques," a man seduces women so that his female accomplice can strangle them for their jewels; in "The Intruder" a woman whose three friends all get married on the same day is so distraught at the thought of becoming an old maid that she takes up with a black-clad figure who turns out to be Death. This is danced to Bach.

Ken Ludden's "Royal Invitation: Homage to the Queen of Tonga," the evening's World Premiere, is a naive character ballet that manages to be offensive to both England and Tonga. (Queen Elizabeth tries on her crown while prissily sipping tea; a Bushman performs a gropingly savage pas de deux with one of the court ladies.) It's the kind of tableau a third-grade class would stage, and they'd probably do it better.

Guest star Sallie Wilson, formerly of American Ballet Theater, danced the role of Queen Salote of Tonga. Good-natured and charming, she was on the stage for less than 10 minutes; her solo, repeated several times, consisted of about six steps.

A small regional group of this caliber would scarcely seem to warrant exposure here. There are at least a dozen Washington-based dance companies that far surpass the Poughkeepsie Ballet Theatre.