The North Carolina Dance Theater, which made its Kennedy Center debut last night in the first of two programs in the Dance America series at the Terrace Theater, seemed both a wonder and a mystery. The wonder was that such a lively and able-bodied troupe, with such a varied repertoire in tow, should have grown up and flourished in as relatively small and isolated a place as Winston-Salem.

The mystery was the extremes of quality, both in the dancing and the program, that marked last night's performance--such a bewildering juxtaposition of strength and weakness, of tastefulness and meretriciousness, is hard to rationalize. Yet maybe both the wonder and the mystery have common sources in the company's origins, its youth, its artistic goals and its manner of functioning.

Some background is in order. In 1965, an experienced, Canadian-born dancer named Robert Lindgren, who had performed with the New York City Ballet among other companies, was appointed dean of the school of dance at the newly established North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The town had a history of fervent advocacy of the arts, and the school rapidly evolved into one of the nation's outstanding conservatories. The dance division, in particular, enjoys a lofty reputation and has become one of the major suppliers of fledgling dancers for the leading companies of the land. In 1970, Lindgren founded the chamber-sized, classically based North Carolina Dance Theater as a "professional affiliate" of the school--about half the company is drawn from the school, and the troupe spends up to 30 weeks each year touring both domestically and abroad.

It's understandable, then, that NCDT, as a quasi-educational enterprise, would seek to expose both its young dancers and its audiences to as broad a spectrum of dance idioms as a troupe its size (16 members) can manage, and to do so while enduring all the rigors of a roadshow. Both the rewards and the perils of such a course were on exhibit at the Terrace Theater last night. The high level of training for which the school is noted was evident throughout, yet the dancing ran a gamut from impeccable to messy. A similar unevenness beset the program, which ranged from sturdy neo-classicism (Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante"), to daring, complex modernity (Senta Driver's "Resettings"), to slick, showy trash (Oscar Araiz's "Women" and Salvatore Aiello's "Piano Concerto No. 1").

"Allegro Brillante," created in 1956 for the New York City Ballet, is an abstract work set to Tchaikovsky's unfinished Piano Concerto No. 3. Because it's got Balanchine's fusion of streamlined academicism and virtuosic glamor, and because it only calls for two principals and four assisting couples, it's been staged by many smaller companies, and indeed, both our own Washington Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem will be performing the work here later this season.

Technically, the NCDT managed it remarkably well, and Deborah Dawn and Richard Prewitt made a handsome lead couple. Nevertheless, the performance was more like a workout than an artistic statement. The dancers might as well have been accompanied by drumbeats, for all the difference Tchaikovsky made to their projection of the piece, and the steps, as quick and sharp as they were, remained only steps, rather than links in a grand chain of eloquence.

The company missed some of the brawny ferocity of Driver's typically oddball, enigmatic "Resettings" (commissioned by NCDT), but effectively captured its dry, perverse wit. The audience, which responded thunderously to everything else on the program, applauded only lightly at the end of this one, but picked up on Driver's structural puns and sight gags with frequent chuckles. Driver's choreography--at once cerebral and athletic, richly inventive but exasperatingly meandering, starchy in tone and then suddenly poignant with the unexpected entrance of Purcell's "Dido's Lament"--is a tough nut to crack, and this NCDT ensemble made a notably brave go at it.

The best that can be said for the remaining two works is that the company did what it could to take them seriously. Araiz's "Women," set to the soundtrack of a movie called "Manhole," displays five female dancers in variously revealing bits of lingerie. They pose, writhe, flex and arch through sundry jazz dance platitudes--softcore sexploitation parading as bluesy soul-searching. Aiello's "Piano Concerto No. 1," with music by Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) is saddled with an equally cheesy score that is a synthetic melange of secondhand mannerisms. The choreography tries to make a virtue of unabashed eclecticism--a program note refers to the ballet as a "game of dance styles," but this facile patchwork of imitation Robbins, imitation Graham and imitation Fosse is strictly foul play.

The troupe completes its visit tonight with a repeat of the Balanchine, plus other works by Aiello, Bill Evans and Lambros Lambrou.