New Yorker Karole Armitage has a reputation as a postmodern firebrand of dance. Just last month, Vanity Fair called her the "punk princess of the downtown scene," a description that might seem apropos, at least superficially: She has choreographed to music by art-rock composers Rhys Chatham and David Linton; she wears her hair close-cropped, save for a blondish sprout in front.

But the 31-year-old dancer-choreographer spurns the description. "The word 'punk' should be banished, in reference to me," she says.

Her career, she says, "really has been a big circle." It began with the ballets of George Balanchine, developed through the iconoclastic modernism of Merce Cunningham, blossomed with her own avant-garde work as an independent choreographer, and has come back increasingly in recent seasons to her classical origins.

Symbolically, the circle closes tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House, when her ballet "The Mollino Room" receives its world premiere performance by American Ballet Theatre, with a cast headed by Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Armitage already had made a work for a major ballet company -- a 1984 piece called "GV-10," commissioned for the Paris Opera Ballet by its artistic director, Rudolf Nureyev. Nevertheless, she was removed enough from the ballet scene that when Baryshnikov asked her to create something for ABT, she had seen him dance only once, years ago. "He doesn't know that," she confides with an impish grin.

She describes working with Baryshnikov as "very exciting," a learning experience and "much more of a collaborative enterprise than I would have anticipated."

"I knew we were only going to have three weeks to put the whole thing together, and then only a couple of hours of rehearsal time each day," she says. "So I carefully worked out steps for Misha in advance . . . I wanted to be prepared when we got into the studio. And I especially wanted to come up with choreographic inventions -- steps and rhythms -- that would challenge him.

"When we actually got to working together, though, I had to do a lot of adjusting. His way of phrasing is unique, no one phrases like he does."

She says she also found herself responding to his changes of mood and disposition. "He loves to do imitations and have a lot of fun in rehearsals," she says. "And he's also got this great curiosity and sense of humor. But then things in his life will crop up -- like Jimmy Cagney's death, which had him quite upset -- and affect him deeply."

Baryshnikov's vicissitudes of temperament were relevant to Armitage's choreography because he's not only the ballet's protagonist but also in large measure its subject.

"The intention of the ballet is twofold," Armitage explains. "One is to show something about the inventiveness possible in contemporary ballet, and the other is that, through this, many images come together as a portrait of Misha. I'm using the images he has in our culture -- as our greatest male dancer; as a classicist in search of contemporary style; as a movie star; as head of ABT, with all the responsibilities that fall on him; and as a performer who's reached the age of 38, and can't help but wonder about his artistic future."

"The Mollino Room" has three movements, set in turn to Paul Hindemith's "Kammermusik No. 5" (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra); Mike Nichols and Elaine May's recorded comedy routine "My Son the Nurse"; and the third movement of Hindemith's String Quartet No. 3, Op. 22. Besides Baryshnikov, the premiere cast includes a lead couple, Leslie Browne and Ricardo Bustamante, and four other couples. Scenery and costumes are by Armitage's fiance', the painter David Salle, and the lighting is by Jennifer Tipton.

Armitage describes the work like this: "In the beginning we see Misha dancing in a very honed way. Then he enters into a kind of conflict -- the images here have to do with how he appears in the public domain, as opposed to his private needs, with his solitude, with things he'd like to be doing for himself. The second movement, to the Nichols and May, has a very wacky dancing style. After a duet for the main couple, and then a part for the four couples, Misha dances a trio with the main couple. He seems very carefree, but then suddenly, you feel that underneath is some deep emotion, a kind of troubled feeling . . . This leads into the third movement, and the very poignant, introspective Hindemith quartet. There's an intimate, erotic duet, but the thread of the movement is about Misha questioning where destiny is leading him, and how he has to accept what fate brings. The last image turns things in a different direction, but I'd rather not give it away."

It is early April, and Armitage is at ABT studios in New York. Her explanation is interrupted by Baryshnikov's arrival for a 90-minute rehearsal. He reviews his steps for the third movement, sometimes counting aloud, or in a whisper, pausing now and then to let ballet master David Richardson rewind the tape so a passage can be repeated.

At one point Armitage scrambles to shed her blue jeans -- under which she's wearing fire-engine-red tights -- in order to cue Baryshnikov with the steps of another dancer. The two of them kid one another with professional banter, but there's an air of intentness that's never broken.

"This gesture -- how strong should it be, is it like I forgot something?" Baryshnikov asks.

"More like you are suddenly struck by something," Armitage returns.

A bit later, Baryshnikov is strutting forward, turning his head from side to side, with his arms cocked up in a deliberately affected pose.

"How mannered do you want these steps?" he asks. "They're so appealing, so Vogue magazine 1936!"

"Just like you did them, that's just the right amount," she says.

Armitage started studying ballet when she was 5, with a teacher who had danced with the New York City Ballet. She continued her ballet training at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and was then recruited for Switzerland's Geneva Ballet, led by former Balanchine dancer Patricia Neary.

At that point, her growing resentment of the rigidities of ballet as she'd known it boiled over. "The experiences I'd had, both at the North Carolina school and with Pat Neary, had gone so against my feelings about artistic growth that I ended up thinking I couldn't stand it any more. There was such an emphasis on utter submissiveness, on obeying rules in a blind manner. It was spirit-crushing, rather than liberating."

She returned to New York and danced with Cunningham for five years, leaving in 1981 to form her own company. Much of her work was premiered abroad, because that's where the commissions came from ("Here no one asked," she says) -- contemporary troupes in London and Tasmania, and the experimental dance group of the Paris Opera Ballet, for example. Her primary showcase in this country has been the Dance Theater Workshop, where the premieres of "Drastic Classicism" (1981) and "The Watteau Duet" (1985) took place.

For now, she's back on a ballet jag stylistically.

"I don't see any reason to reinvent the wheel when it comes to dance vocabulary," she says. "I much prefer to take advantage of the 400 years of evolution of ballet, exploring the ways the body can move. I also think you can be more profoundly original by working with the ballet vocabulary than by starting from scratch.

"I'm interested in classical dance for our time. And I'm especially interested in the ways dance can acquire meaning by interacting with music and design. Balanchine liberated us from thinking that dance had to have costumes. Cunningham gave dance the right to be independent of music. Now I'd like to see how we can bring these things back, but have the dance be the generator of the meaning, using these other elements to amplify that meaning."