"My most perfect and finest choreographic work, especially as regards its Danish character"--that is how August Bournonville appraised "A Folk Tale," one of 10 ballets by this prolific 19th-century genius that has been preserved to this day.

In the wake of the immensely beguiling performance by the Royal Danish Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, it is easy to empathize with Bournonville's pride of achievement. The disarmingly fanciful story with its endearing fairy-tale characters, the seamless tapestry of dancing and mime, the wonderfully lilting, evocative score (the work of two notable Danish composers--Niels Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann), the beautifully harmonized ensemble work of the cast, the lovingly detailed staging by Kirsten Ralov, Lars Juhl's visually enchanting settings and costumes, the affectionate musical direction by Peter Ernst Lassen--all these conspire to produce stage magic of the rarest sort.

"A Folk Tale" rings with echoes of both Bournonville's close friend, Hans Christian Andersen, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Indeed, the ballet ends with a Midsummer's Eve festivity, and the plot devolves around a changeling--the beauteous Hilda. Hilda lives, as the story begins, among the trolls, those mythical, half-beastly folk who dwell inside mountains. But she's a true human, who--as is revealed to us in a dream scene, a fantasy within a fantasy--was abducted by the trolls as an infant and replaced with one of their own, the vixenish Birthe. All the complications of the narrative, which shuttles between the rustic normalcy of the humans and the comical grotesquerie of the trolls, are designed to effect the inevitable switch, reuniting Hilda with her true love, the strangely brooding Sir Ove.

Bournonville's treatment abounds in further references, Shakespearean and otherwise--the melancholy Ove is a fusion of Hamlet and Prince Albrecht of "Giselle" and the latter ballet is alluded to in the Wili-like elf-maidens, in Hilda's devotion to the Christian cross and in several other particulars.

For all its richness of style and content, "A Folk Tale" can be something of a stumbling block for audiences unused to its manners. Intermission grumblings centered on a perceived "lack of dancing." In fact, the ballet embraces a host of country dance forms, ravishing solos for Hilda and Ove (as well as their love duet), ingenious parody variations for Birthe and the trolls Diderik and Viderik and a brilliant Pas de Sept in the final scene.

What's problematical for newcomers is the "Danish character" Bournonville cites--it's both the heart of the ballet's charm, and a deceptive barrier. The spectacular Russian style of dancing we've become inured to here is like skyrockets going off in great ostentatious bursts. The Bournonville idiom is more like a shower of sparklers, fluttering and shimmering in dizzying array. And the mime isn't a stock symbolism, separate from the dancing, but simply another dance mode--a corporeal speech, subtly inflected to convey infinite nuances of motivation, character and action.

For such reasons, there's no such thing as a minor role in "A Folk Tale." A creation like Fredbjorn Bjornsson's Viderik--surely the most adorable ogre who ever graced a stage--is worth more than its weight in any of the more obviously virtuosic (and expert) contributions we saw from, say, Frank Andersen or the exquisite Heidi Ryom in the Pas de Sept. Much the same goes for Johnny Eliasen's Diderik, Lise Stripp's Birthe, Mona Jensen's Muri, Lillian Jensen's Nurse, Kjeld Noack's Chef, and every one of the "subsidiary" players. Capping all this we had superb dance portrayals from both Arne Villumsen, whose dark masculinity so suits Ove, and Lis Jeppesen as Hilda. The bewitching Jeppesen, with her saucer-eyed, child-woman look, is not only an ideal Hilda, but, as becomes more evident each time she takes the stage, a consummate artist in point of phrasing, line, rubato and poetic sensibility. She is, in short, one of the most remarkable dancers one can see anywhere these days.

"A Folk Tale" will be repeated, with changes of cast, tonight and twice tomorrow.