I may as well come clean at the start. I don't know what to make of "The Mollino Room," the new ballet by Karole Armitage.

The work was given its world premiere by American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night. ABT's artistic director, Mikhail Baryshnikov, has the central role; he's joined by a lead couple -- Leslie Browne and Ricardo Bustamante -- and four other couples.

The 20-minute piece is in three movements, each with its own decor, costumes and score. Though it's strongly rooted in traditional balletic moves and poses, it's startlingly unconventional in almost every other respect. It's eccentric and suspenseful enough to keep one tautly attentive without break. But it's also complicated, tricky and dense enough to defeat one's efforts to absorb it all at first sight.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the premiere was that it made one want to come back for a second, third and more tries.

In an interview last week, Armitage obligingly presented us with a kind of scenario for the work. Her twofold intention, she said, was to explore the technical potential of contemporary ballet, and in so doing create a multilayered portrait of Baryshnikov.

Would anyone have arrived at this without being told? Hard to say. The technical kinks of the piece are conspicuous enough, certainly. Armitage's two masters -- Balanchine and Cunningham -- are echoed in a variety of ways, from the distortions of classical vocabulary, to the complex treatment of space, to the disjunctions between movement, sight and sound. But the mix is very much Armitage's own.

The portrait of Baryshnikov is more elusive and bewildering, though lots of clues are strewn around. Baryshnikov is almost always set apart from the other dancers; when he does interact with them, it's as a leader or model. The stratification of the ensemble suggests the rankings of ABT -- corps (the four couples), soloists (Browne and Bustamante), and principal (Baryshnikov). The movement given to Baryshnikov -- virtuosic, individual, full of abrupt anglings and shifts of direction, protean in mood -- answers pretty well to what we know of the man, his career and his artistry.

Baryshnikov is no open book -- neither is this ballet, and maybe that's part of its point. This isn't the first portrait of him in dance; Twyla Tharp alone has given us three -- "Push Comes to Shove," "The Little Ballet" and "Sinatra Suite" -- each quite different in vein from each other and from the Armitage. From the nature of the subject, none can be "definitive." One thing they have in common: When you've got Baryshnikov dancing in the midst of taxing, intricate and innovative choreography, the stage fairly burns up with electric intensity.

The curtain goes up, with no music, on the first of Salle's five backdrops -- a cartoonish depiction of three black rubber boots, tall, medium and small (like rubbers), against vertical green and white awning stripes. Baryshnikov stands slightly to the rear of four women. They're in fluffy reddish tops, with stringy miniskirts over yellow tights and black toe shoes. He's all in blue, except for a gold oval decal on his chest that looks from a distance like a whale. The music for the first movement starts -- Hindemith's "Kammermusik No. 5" (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra), first movement -- its sour diatonicism is restless, driving. A new backrop is revealed -- a plain field of color, like cream of tomato soup. Enter Browne, in green, and the five other men, in armless, knobby sweaters over bermuda shorts, tights, white sox with red oblongs on them, and black slippers. The movement wends its quirky way until Baryshnikov strikes a sharply canted pose, and all the others exit.

The second movement is accompanied by a cut from the old Nichols and May comedy record, the one where they're trying to improvise a routine about "My Son the Nurse," and they keep cracking up at their own inventions. Salle gives us two new backdrops -- a silver tray with a tea set, and a rectilinear abstraction -- and another round of oddball, giddy costumes. Choreographically, there are suggestions of rehearsal, ballet class, and the learning of new work. Salle's drop for the last movement shows a mechanical thingamabob that might be a part from a motor; the music is the ruminative, melancholic third movement from Hindemith's String Quartet, Op. 22, and Baryshnikov is more alone, more set apart here than elsewhere. There's a long, sensual duet for Browne and Bustamante. At the end, Baryshnikov suddenly snakes through the line of couples and dashes out, leaving the others in awkard lift positions -- as it were, in the lurch.

The audience cheered the work, and brought its principal collaborators on stage for bows. The best thing about the evening was the sense of excitement about new ABT repertory -- as opposed to the "museum" pieces -- it conveyed. Not that we don't all need and want the good old numbers. However, as the remainder of the program showed -- "Swan Lake, Act II," a "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux, and Balanchine's "Bouree Fantasque" -- preserving them in style poses distinct problems of other sorts. Outstanding among the performances was Leslie Browne's ecstatic yearning in the "Gwendoline" movement of the Balanchine.