How good it is to have American Ballet Theatre back in our midst -- this was both the first thought and the last as the company returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House last night for a week's run, an abbreviated surrogate for the canceled four-week season this past December. Classical ballet on the epic dimensions of ABT is by no means the totality of the dance universe, but there is a sense in which it remains the center, and it is certainly the form most dearly espoused by the public. We Washingtonians have come to have a certain proprietary feeling about ABT in particular, both through long association and through a reciprocal warmth that has evolved between the troupe's dancers and Kennedy Center audiences -- hence the aura of homecoming that seemed to pervade the house last night.

The program itself was something of an odd collation of new and old, and it didn't draw an entirely full hall, though this may well have been due to its late scheduling as an added evening, a sort of combined afterthought and prelude to the originally planned fare. Still, the bredth of its contents reminded us once again of one of ABT's distinctive attributes as a company -- its unrivaled stylistic polydexterity.

Without question the hit of the evening, judged by audience response, was the Washington premiere of Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Great Galloping Gottschalk," a flamboyant romp of a piece for 17 dancers in six closely knit sections. There's no mystery about its allure. Commissioned for the troupe by ABT supporters in Miami last yeear, the work is frankly a crowd pleaser, and the crowd is frankly pleased. It starts with jauntily accessible music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, colorful, rhythmically saucy piano gems, orchestrated in fair-ground style by Jack Elliott. The flashy, clever and skillful choreography, with its hints of Latin flavoring, is equally easy to digest, and sensibly flattering to its cast of soloists. Among them, Susan Jaffe and Robert La Fosse luxuriate in a lushly sentimental pas de deux; Kristine Soleri uses her svelte pliancy to grand effect in a moodily sensuous soliloquy; and Danilo Radojevic and Johan Renvall reap the benefit of a razzle-dazzle challenge duet with aptly eye-popping bravura. Gretchen Warren's costumes are the latest in chic "studio" gear, and Edward M. Greenberg's lighting keeps the action in tight focus.

For all its scintillation, "Gottschalk" is not much but surface. The evening's other Washington premiere, Merce Cunningham's "Duets," is another story -- forgive a gustatory simile, but if "Gottschalk" is baked Alaska, a flaming and spectacular dessert, then "Duets" is Napoleon brandy, a spirit fit for kings, purely distilled, so good it burns going down. "Duets," paired with John Cage's rippling percussion score ("Improvisation III"), was created in 1980 for Cunningham's own compny; the choreograher worked devotedly with ABT dancers last year to superimpose his unique modern dance idiom upon their classical training. Last night's cast of six couples bore witness to how brilliantly he succeeded. It helps, of course, that Cunningham's idiom itself has a strong classical base. Even so, as the performance made clear, the technical hurdles alone arre fearsome. "Duets" is what the name says it is, a series of highly contrasted pairings which slightly overlap; at the end, all 12 dancers are splayed across the stage in a frozen image of what Cunningham calls the "field" -- the underlying architecture of dance space, joined together and made visible by the structural tensions of the dance. In Mark Lancaster's vivid costume hues, against a jet black backdrop, the daners -- Elaine Kudo, Gregory Osborne, Lisa de Rribere, Lawrence Pech, Amy Rose, ROSss Stretton, Cherly Yeager, Johan Renvall, Susan Jaffe, Ronald Perry, Ellen Krafft and Robert La Fosse -- made Cunningham's endlessly inventive shapes seem as clear and eloquent as a waterfall.

The "old" portion of the program was made up of the "La Fille Mal Gardeec pas de deux, in a version staged by Diana Joffe and danced with truly exquisite virtuosity by Marianna Tcherkassky and Danilo Radojevic, and the classic "Shades" scene from Natalia Makarova's production of "La Bayadere," with Kevin McKenzie and Magali Messac leading a rather excessively detached performance.