"It's a little present for Washington," says Mikhail Baryshnikov.

This weekend his American Ballet Theatre will give four "Nutcracker" performances, and each will star a different Washington ballerina.

Three of them -- Amanda McKerrow, Marianna Tcherkassky and Bonnie Moore -- trained under the redoubtable Mary Day at Washington School of the Ballet. The fourth, Cheryl Yeager, is a product of the Maryland School of Ballet.

"For us, Washington is the 'Nutcracker' city," says the great Russian dancer, who choreographed this new version of the Christmas classic in 1976. "We premiered it here, and now we feel a little guilty over not doing it last time we were in town. Then we noticed we had four Claras who came from this area, so we put one in each performance. It's interesting because they all do the role so differently."

The four of them met for breakfast the other day: neat young women with tiny wrists, narrow heads and huge eyes. One after the other, they studied a menu the size of Moses' tablets, politely put it down and reached for a sticky bun. This was eaten very deliberately, with knife and fork.

They have all done "Nutcracker" in some version or other. Ballet schools love it because it gets the smallest children onto the stage for their parents to beam at. McKerrow and Tcherkassky performed it for Ms. Day. Tcherkassky, by the way, danced Clara here in the world premiere for ABT. McKerrow and Yeager had the role in the recent Los Angeles tour.

"Before I came to ABT I did it in Tarrytown," laughs Yeager, "in upstate New York. A lot of small companies make up their own 'Nutcracker' for Christmas; it's their bread and butter."

The Baryshnikov treatment changes little-girl Clara into a woman and makes her the star, turning the ballet into a romance and liberating it somewhat from dependence on the Christmas theme. In fact, Baryshnikov says, the role of Clara rather resembles Juliet now.

"You could do it for Easter," McKerrow teases. "Have a cherry tree instead of a Christmas tree."

"Yeah," says Moore, "have the Attack of the Rabbits instead of the mice."

It is a tough role, they all agree, especially in the second act, "where you go nonstop for 10 minutes. Other than that, it's fun." They call it a short ballet, running an hour and a half.

They have all danced with Baryshnikov -- Moore comes in this morning fresh from a sensational pas de deux with him in "Swan Lake" -- and find that, "like anyone else, he can be wonderful or difficult. It depends on his mood."

It's tougher when he's backstage. "We can see him back there," laughs Yeager. "Gesturing. 'Girls! Lines!' Then we wish he was sitting out front."

Each of the four will have a different partner in the "Nutcracker" performances Saturday and Sunday afternoon and evening.

"We don't all dream of doing 'Nutcracker,' " says McKerrow. "Some others we may like better. There are a lot of Claras in the company, you know. We're just the Washington Claras."

They can't say enough about Day. "An incredible eye is what she has," Moore says.

McKerrow: "She spots your special quality, which is not easy to do with a 15-year-old girl. And she helps you develop it. Her main concern is the end product."

It was Mary Day who took her on at 14, a small blond from Albuquerque, and it was Day who urged her to go out for the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1981. She won the gold medal. The next year she moved up to ABT.

Moore, from Phoenix, joined the Washington Ballet as an apprentice in 1980 after winning a national competition at 15. She won the Prix de Lausanne in '82, took an international prize in Bulgaria and came to ABT in 1984.

Tcherkassky, who was raised in Kensington, was trained by her mother, Lillian Oka Tcherkassky, studied at the Washington Ballet before moving to New York and joining ABT in 1970. She has been a principal dancer there for nearly eight years.

Yeager is a Washington native who trained with the Maryland Ballet, becoming a corps dancer with ABT in 1976 and a soloist in 1981.

The Washington dance audience is polite, they decide, and doesn't go for the easy tricks ("in L.A. or Miami they clap when you do anything more than three times. You're working hard and your partner does a leap and gets a big hand . . . you feel you should turn a cartwheel or something"), but this time they sense the crowd is a bit balleted-out, with so many companies coming through town recently. Nevertheless, the houses are usually sold out.

McKerrow: "The New York audience spoils you. They've seen so much. They know. Occasionally you get a couple of busloads of New York fans here, and you can tell."

They laugh about the things that happen onstage: "Sometimes you blank out, just blank out," says Moore, "so you improvise. Nobody knows but the ballet mistress."

Tcherkassky: "Once in 'Cinderella' my partner blanked in a pas de deux. I worked my way to him and whispered, 'Over here!' I kept having to rush up to him and whisper at him. Afterward Mischa said, 'I thought you were being a bit too passionate there. You're supposed to be a shy young thing.' "

Yeager: "That look of terror! Looking for some one word that'll clue you in. I learned one part in two days, and my partner and I had a little code, words he'd call to me. If he'd gone blank that night I don't know what I'd have done."

McKerrow: "One time the whole orchestra blanked out in 'Giselle.' They left out a coda that contained the whole essence of the ballet. I said, 'I'm going home' and went into my little house on the stage and pulled the shades. My partner wanted to come in too. They had to stop the whole thing and start over."

Moore and Yeager are deep in a discussion of some new costumes, and how they crisscross over the midriff, and what you can do to make them comfortable. Despite the artistic rivalries and pressures, there is a democracy in the ballet, a camaraderie almost unique in art.

Every day, every single day, no matter what, the entire company goes to class for nearly two hours. Apprentices, soloists, Baryshnikov himself if he is dancing, all work out together, limbering up in increasingly difficult exercises. There is a saying: After one day without practice you know it; after two days the director knows it; after three days the audience knows it. . . .

Over a hundred of them are here this day, lined up at portable barres in a large room at the Kennedy Center. The pianist tirelessly plays familiar rhythmic ballet themes while a very small girl sits on the bench beside him. The magnificent, statuesque ballet mistress leads them in a series of complicated bends and turns and leaps, calling out the moves in French. Her name is Olga Evreinoff, and it is her multilingual daughter who sits on the bench. People wear an astonishing variety of clothes, baggy and sleek, in layers. Almost everyone has legwarmers.

As the exercises get harder, the clothes start to come off. Dancers rummage in the satchels and packs that litter the floor. Sweat beads on necks and backs. Bodies: tremendous thighs, thin arms, superb arches. People chew gum, talk a little, tighten their slippers. The work is endless, but for some it is still not enough: They drop out to do splits and impossible stretches by themselves. Toward the end, restless young men practice lifts and pirouettes for fun. An English setter with someone's jacket draped on his back wanders across the floor and lies down.

"You don't dance every night, maybe once or twice or four times a week," says Moore. "But you can never sit down and eat a big meal, for instance. You're always working."