Once upon a time in China there was a poet who read his new verses to his cook. Any line that this simple woman failed to understand, he would erase. The poet wanted to be popular. So does the Central Ballet of China, judging by the works being shown on its American tour. Last night's program, the second of the two being given this week at the Kennedy Center, probably didn't even require much erasing between conception and production.

"Three Preludes," Ben Stevenson's familiar duet to Rachmaninoff piano music, juggles two emotions -- the dancers' devotion to dance and their attraction to each other -- without shedding much light on either. As performed by Fen Ying and Zhang Weiqiang, Stevenson's girl and boy were contemplatively heroic. They understated the pair's personal emotions in a tasteful way compared to the harangue some dancers have made of this piece. Zhang's stance is noble. Neither high leaps nor difficult lifts upset his bearing. Fen uses her body as an arc without angle. This was a rendering of the Anglo-American Stevenson's choreography in the manner of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet.

In the "Don Quixote" pas de deux, which Marius Petipa originally choreographed for the Bolshoi, the ballerina part was danced yesterday by Tang Min. Her manner was lighter, more flexed than the hallmark Moscow style, but she exuded all the precision and charm called for by this old show stopper. Her partner, Zhao Minhua, has a light attack also, but not yet her stamina. Often he failed to finish precisely, a frequent fault in this company. The problem, though, may be more apparent than real, for these Chinese are so diligent that they refuse to hide mistakes to which dancers everywhere are prone.

The bill's big production was "The Maid of the Sea." The best effects are at the beginning, as the curtain opens on the dark shapes of trees and an arched bridge silhouetted against a sky of rose gray with a border of blue above. A shepherd (Zhang) enters with his shepherd's crook. Suddenly there pop up, like leprechauns, old Ginseng men. This scene has utter charm, but it is followed by too many others with similar trick dance steps, acrobatic feats, shifting group formations and sculptural adagios.

Repetition rather than development seems to be the principle of composition. To be decorative rather than deep seems to be the aesthetic goal. Yet this is a company worth seeing, because of the unusual honesty of the dancers and their training. No one performance and cast will show what variety lies within this style.