Marianna Tcherkassky has never tried to cultivate the image of a passionate pyrotechnician. With her filigree lightness, one imagines her as a Sylph or Giselle. It's always surprising to see her, hand on hip, fire off perfectly placed fouette's, or dart into a jump as if shot from a crossbow. Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tcherkassky danced the ballerina role in American Ballet Theatre's production of "Paquita" like a small Spanish spitfire, seducing her partner (Danilo Radojevic, who retaliated with some brilliant pyrotechnics of his own) and the audience with a technique as pure as it was sultry.

"Paquita," once a full evening work, exists now only as a one-act string of divertissements preserved in Russia as a graduation exercise and making its way to the West in a number of guises. Makarova's staging of the work looks rather picked over and dry -- one gets the sense of something unidentifiable being missing -- and it needs really first-class dancing to work as theater. Saturday night, all four soloists (Carla Stallings, Chrisa Keramidas, Christine Spizzo and Amanda McKerrow) were up to the demands of the choreography, and Tcherkassky, with her gift for making the most familiar look surprising, made one believe Marius Petipa had created the role with her in mind.

Putting over "Paquita" is nothing to doing the same for "Graduation Ball." For years, ABT has danced this once-charming romp as though it were low camp, but Saturday night new dancers made the ballet seem credible. McKerrow and John Gardner as the Junior Girl and her Junior Cadet were fresh and young with a sweetness that never cloyed. Roman Greller was a truly touching Headmistress, caring equally about her young charges and propriety. The biggest disappointment was Raymond Serrano's General, about 20 years too old and five stages too lame.

Saturday afternoon began inauspiciously with a performance of Merce Cunningham's "Duets," thrown on as a replacement for "Theme and Variations" because of an injury to Magali Messac. The substitution was unfair to both the audience (which expected "Theme") and the dance, which was hardly intended to warm up the house at a matinee. "Duets" looked even more shaky than it had at its first performance, but, when repeated that evening with the same cast, the dance was taut and bristling with electricity.

The only new choreography shown Saturday (at the matinee) was Michael Vernon's "In a Country Garden." Although the work was well suited to the talents of Cheryl Yeager and Gil Boggs, one wonders why the company acquired it. There are already enough pas de deux to 19th-century ballet music created in that century (many in ABT's repertory) of far superior choreography that would have served the same purpose.