Mikhail Baryshnikov lounges in a desk chair, boyish and innocently beguiling as ever.

He's dressed characteristically -- polo shirt, jeans and boots. The clothes suit the setting, a large cluttered room in a warehouse on lower Broadway. It is his office -- the office of the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre. Huge circulation ducts bend across the ceiling; an old sofa is propped by a window; posters, photographs, a Cocteau drawing of Stravinsky adorn the walls, as well as a bulletin board studded with memos and mementos. And in a corner, Baryshnikov, talking about his new movie, "White Nights," which opens in Washington today.

"It's hard to speak about, I can't be objective," he says. "I like certain parts. I think the film works, I think some people will enjoy it, others maybe won't. It will be interesting to see what kind of an audience it draws, whether young people will go for a picture that's so right wing, in its pro-American message. Also, I had reservations from the start about the story line, which I don't find very convincing.

"But what do I know about it?"

In fact, the story line draws an obvious parallel with his own history. Baryshnikov plays a Soviet ballet dancer, Nikolai (Kolya) Rodchenko, who had defected to the West some years before. When Kolya's Tokyo-bound plane makes a crash landing in Siberia, he's held by the KGB and introduced to his counterpart, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), an American ex-serviceman and tap dancer who had defected to Russia in protest over the Vietnam war. Gradually, Raymond and Kolya find grounds for friendship, and from there it's a cliffhanger as the two attempt to flee with Raymond's Russian wife Darya (Isabella Rossellini).

Most reviews of "White Nights" so far, lukewarm or cooler on the movie itself, rave about Baryshnikov. Vogue's Molly Haskell says he's "not only the world's most gorgeous creature, but could be its greatest movie actor, given half a chance." Pauline Kael writes in The New Yorker that he "might have been created for the movie camera." Newsweek's David Ansen declares that "Baryshnikov's first starring role leaves no doubt that he has both the charm and the sexual charisma of a major star."

Still, making the picture was a personal ordeal. There'd been grumbling in the dance world about his giving up the ballet stage and putting aside his responsibilities as ABT director to make a Hollywood film.

"I grew up a lot on this film," Baryshnikov says. "It's opened my eyes in many respects to my past and to my future. This was not for me a trial balloon, it was not something to see if I can be a movie star. It was an escape from reality, from difficulties in my life."

Surprisingly, for one who seemed chronically addicted to cigarettes, he does not smoke through this conversation.

"Yes, I've been off since the end of February," he says. "I had been having a lot of hard moments in my life, I was in a slump for a few months, all things taken together. One night, I got scared. It was a night of depression. I felt terrible, I looked terrible. I said to myself, 'Why are you giving yourself this self-punishment? You don't punish yourself enough all the time with everything else, why do you need this extra?'

"Time, after all, is punishing us," he says. "So I stopped."

In "White Nights," the KGB attempts to lure the character Baryshnikov plays into returning to Leningrad's Kirov Ballet, the very company Baryshnikov deserted in 1974 in his leap to the West. The picture was shot in England, Scotland, Portugal and Finland, but the movie also contains recent, reportedly bootlegged shots of Leningrad, including the exterior of the Kirov, as well as some disarming black-and-white footage of the 19-year-old Baryshnikov dancing in a classroom. Seeing this, it is not hard to understand how making the film could have been painful for Baryshnikov.

He says it wasn't nearly as bad as he anticipated.

"I thought it would be much worse. In the beginning, I was against the idea of setting the film's action in Russia. For one thing, I doubted that we could re-create the look of it realistically. And I never went for trying to make the actors speak in those terrible Russian accents -- it's not necessary, why not just have everyone speak in English? But Taylor [Hackford, the director] wanted it to give some flavoring, and I understand that.

"I did feel pretty strange when we were shooting in Finland and there were a lot of Russian tourists there watching us work. But I wasn't really upset by it, or thrown off the track. Obviously in making the picture, there were times when I had to recall the emotions of what I went through in the past.

"That was tough. But it's also every actor's experience. You look back to moments in your life that you can apply to the dramatic situation, that can help you project what the director asks of you. That's no big acting secret.

"But the truth is I have passed through that period of my life. The weight of my life now is here, in this country. I've put roots down here, my consciousness has changed. I think in a different way. My life is here. My daughter is here."

Baryshnikov's daughter Shura, whose mother is actress Jessica Lange, will be 5 in March.

On the bulletin board behind Baryshnikov is a child's crayon drawing of a clown, sent to him by a small boy. "It's a fan letter," Baryshnikov says, suddenly gleeful. His moods change like quicksilver -- he's Hamlet one minute, Mercutio the next. Now one of those cheek-to-cheek grins lights his face as he shows off the envelope the drawing came in, and a picture of the little boy who sent it. "Isn't he adorable, such a sweet, gentle face, an angel," he says, chuckling through the words.

Then, shuffling through papers for something else, he says, "Speaking of angels," and displays another photo. It's blond Shura, clutching a teddy bear and leaning against her father.

Does he see Shura, who lives with her mother, as often as he'd like?

"No," comes the swift, blunt answer. "I'd like to see her all the time." Then he brightens. "Right now I'm seeing a lot of her, every week. They are here now." "They" refers to Lange and her current companion, actor-playwright Sam Shepard, whose child she is pregnant with now; it's not a subject Baryshnikov expands upon.

Though he finished work on "White Nights" more than a year ago, he has only just seen it. "I've been too busy," he says offhandedly. Of his own performance he says he has "mixed feelings."

"I'll say this, that when I finally watched the picture the other day I was glued to it. I hated this, I hated that, and I kept thinking, 'Oh, this could have been much better.'

"But you have to start by understanding that I am a skeptic to begin with -- not just about my acting in this movie, but about theater, ballet, about everything. There have been very few times in my life that I've been shaken by what I'm doing, that I've felt I gave a truly powerful performance.

"For a lot of people it may have been terrific. But in 20 years on the stage I think I did maybe 10 or 15 good performances. All the rest was craft and effort. However, I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

He has less ambivalent feelings about moviemaking.

"One thing about this film is that it made me want to do another film. I know now, from doing this one, what I can do, and I know that I can do it. And working with these people, with all the hardships involved and the complicated relationships, I respect this industry very, very much.

"People complain about how much money Hollywood people make, but $100 million would not be enough for the kind of work they do, especially when they care, and truly fine actors always care."

Between his first movie appearance, in 1977's "The Turning Point," and the new picture, Baryshnikov says he has had numerous film offers.

"Thank God I didn't do them," is all he ventures to say in retrospect. He'd like the next one -- if there is a next one -- to be of a different nature, though.

"This project, 'White Nights,' came about because Mike Medavoy of Orion Pictures, who's a friend of mine and had worked before with Greg Hines, called me up and said, 'What do you think about a dance entertainment, with just you and Greg?' He took the suggestion to Taylor Hackford, the director, who liked the idea. Then the picture went through different studios -- Orion, Paramount, Columbia -- and this is how it came out. There's nothing wrong with that.

"But the next time, I'd prefer something that wasn't a package deal, a production based on personalities. And not just another dance picture -- not that 'White Nights' is really in this category. I'd like to have a director say to me, 'I want you to do a film without dance -- you're right for this part.' "

He says he benefited greatly from training he undertook with Actors Studio coach Sandra Seacat, whom he'd met earlier through Lange.

"One of the main things was she helped me relax in front of the camera," he says. "The best acting I did on the set was in the improvisations before the takes -- that gave me real satisfaction. But keeping the level when the camera was going, that was completely something else. Technicians placing the camera, the director behind you, your throat is dry, and you're trying to forget everything, all distractions, and ask yourself what is this scene really about -- that's when the hard work starts."

One of the film's most compelling scenes has Kolya dancing an impassioned, spectacular solo on the Kirov stage, as he reflects on his career before his flight. The dancing borrows motifs from Russian folk dance, and the music is "The Horses," a song written and sung by Vladimir Vysotsky, a Soviet dissident who died in 1980.

"He was known," Baryshnikov says, "as the Russian bard. He was more popular in Russia than Presley is here. Even though it was sort of underground, his records and tapes were in every house; people sang his songs in the schools, the army, the factories, farms and the government, too. He wrote songs about all sides of Russian life, but because they had political overtones he never got any official recognition. On the other hand, he was a shrewd man, and he was never sent to a prison. I knew him very well. He was a tragic figure, a very good man, but full of pain, for his friends, for himself, for his country. He was in this country a few times, and stayed with me; he recorded many songs in my apartment. I suggested his music for this scene to Taylor, and I choreographed it."

Another chord of reminiscence was struck by his pairing with British actress Helen Mirren, whose father was Russian and who plays Galina Ivanova, Kolya's former lover and ballet partner. "She was wonderful to work with," Baryshnikov says. "But it's funny. The first time I saw her on stage was in London in 1970, when I was there on tour with the Kirov Ballet. It was the year Natasha former Kirov ballerina Natalia Makarova made her jump. And then here we were 15 years later, making a film together, in London, about the Kirov Ballet. Life is so, so weird."

It's the cajoling and threats of debonair but sinister KGB Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) that make the plot of "White Nights" go around. Did Skolimowski's portrayal of the role correspond to the real life KGB? Baryshnikov says yes.

"They're very much like that. They're very well educated, they know the western world, they've all finished a university and many have spent time in diplomatic jobs. Some of them -- the stupid ones -- are truly confused, and believe they're actually doing good for their country. Some are cynical, and do it for the power, the career, the security. And there are some who just love it. They are, of course, routinely a part of every performing company that travels."

Baryshnikov has high praise for the filming of the movie's dance sequences. Twyla Tharp is credited with the movie's choreography, but Hines did his own "tap improvography" and Baryshnikov made sizable contributions of his own.

In Baryshnikov's favorite scene, Hines bets him 11 rubles that he can't do 11 pirouettes in a row (most dancers are happy to reach half that number). Baryshnikov proceeds to whip them off as if he could manage another two dozen without blinking.

"In old days I used to do 15, 16," he says, "and I did 13 or 14 in rehearsal. I thought it would be nice to do 15 for the picture, but in the end it didn't look very convincing, so I settled for less to make the turns look more natural."

"White Nights" has stimulated a new round of innuendo concerning Baryshnikov's personal life. A recent, otherwise insightful cover story in GQ magazine parrots gossip linking him to various women, including Isabella Rossellini, who, denying it in an interview of her own for Saturday Review, says that she had heard such rumors "even before I met Misha."

Says Baryshnikov: "Let them make up whatever they want. My life is my life. Nobody really knows it. It's nobody's business. Who can take such things seriously, when there are so many more interesting and important things in life to get upset about?"

He makes a habit of self-deprecation, forever putting down his English (which is attractively idiosyncratic), his piano playing (which is remarkably fluent), his ballets (all of them box-office bonanzas) and, not infrequently, his own dancing.

On the other hand, he's quick to praise other artists, whose work he avidly seeks out -- one gets the feeling he's on a permanent learner's permit. He had recently seen "Tango Argentino" twice and loved it; had trouble with the dialogue in Robert Wilson's "The Golden Windows" ("he was like playing dice with the words") but thought it "visually extraordinary"; adored Lily Tomlin's new show; found himself "getting into" Steve Reich's minimal music for Eliot Feld's latest ballets; and attended three programs by Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theater, describing it as a "powerful experience." Reports of his voluminous reading, however, are exaggerated, he says. "I'm too tired. I come home, feed the cat and hit the cushion."

Baryshnikov is 37. Looking back at the ground he's covered -- 10 years with the Kirov; medals at Varna and Moscow; an epoch-making decade of dancing in the West; the two-year stint with Balanchine's New York City Ballet; five years as director of ABT; Baryshnikov and Company, the small summer troupe he's organized and toured with; the three ballets he's produced; the book he published in 1976, "Baryshnikov at Work"; television specials; "The Turning Point"; and now "White Nights" -- it doesn't take a sibyl to see that he's approaching yet another crossroads.

He's said repeatedly over the past few years that his dancing days are numbered. Injuries old and new have kept him off the stage for long intervals in recent seasons, and he's still recuperating from last August's knee surgery. He danced publicly for the first time since the operation in a November AIDS benefit at the Met. "It was a strange feeling," he says. "I'm getting there, but I'm not there yet."

But not long after describing the kind of movie he'd like to make next, the conversation takes a sudden and typical U-turn.

"Maybe I won't do any more films. Maybe I'll just start to dance again. You have to pay a certain price to be a dancer. It's not like an actor, who does a job, goes to Hawaii to rest and waits for his agent to call him. But I have to dance. I must dance, as long as I'm still intrigued by live theater, by the terrific ve'rite' of it. There's nothing like that, not even the movies. Lenin said, 'Movies are the first art of the new generation.' But live performance on the stage is not replaceable, not ever, not by anything."

Misha-bashing has become the latest sport in certain corners of the dance press. They say he's a great dancer -- what else can they say? -- but they take him to task for not dancing enough, or for dancing so much that he gets injured; for ABT's deficits; for his treatment of ABT dancers and repertory. While he talks, someone comes in and delivers a letter, which he reads aloud; it lambastes him for his "disastrous" direction of the company. He shrugs and tosses it aside.

"I'm very optimistic about this coming year with ABT, financially and in every other way," he says. "We have a deficit because we overestimated our income this last season, but I think we're getting stronger. We have a new fund-raising campaign, and a more conservative budget projection now."

Picking up steam he talks about all the plans he has for ABT. "We're reviving 'Dark Elegies' this year -- [Anthony] Tudor's working on it now. And we're doing four new ballets. [Kenneth] MacMillan is doing 'Requiem,' with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber. John [Taras] is doing a 'Francesca da Rimini.' David Gordon is going to do a new ballet; he's calling it 'Murder.' Ted [Edward] Gorey is designing it, and the music is Berlioz.

"And Karole Armitage will do her first ABT ballet, with design by the artist David Salle, and a Hindemith score -- this one will have its premiere during our three weeks at the Kennedy Center, in April.

"In Los Angeles in December, we're doing 'Nutcracker.' Maybe we'll do a few 'Nutcrackers' in Washington, too -- we've got new casts, new Claras. Ferri [Alessandra Ferri, former Royal Ballet ballerina who joined ABT in September] will do it; Amanda McKerrow is learning it; so is Bonnie Moore."

The knee operation last summer kept him from dancing with Ferri at the Met. Will this finally give him his chance to partner Ferri?

The twinkling grin arcs across his face again.

"I hope I'll dance with all of them."