For as long as there is such a thing as classical ballet, "The Sleeping Beauty" will remain its ultimate touchstone -- an ideal of grandeur and perfection for generation upon generation to strive for, but probably never completely attain.

American Ballet Theatre's luxuriant new production, which had its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House Thursday night with Amanda McKerrow as Princess Aurora and Kevin McKenzie as Prince Desire, is an ambitious and honorable example of that striving. It goes to show, among other things, that the ideal is as elusive as ever, but also that the attempt to reach it is worth making if only for the artistic lessons to be learned en route.

In the brilliance and polish of its dancing and the sumptuousness of its physical trappings the production sets a high standard. What's lacking, at least judged by Thursday night's performance, is heart.

On one level, "Sleeping Beauty" represents the pinnacle of theatrical spectacle in the imperial manner, and at the same time, the apex of Marius Petipa's career as the classical choreographer par excellence. On another level, Petipa's vision and Tchaikovsky's music united to make the ballet,potentially at any rate, a profoundly affecting allegory about love as the divine element in human affairs. It is love -- as symbolized by the Lilac Fairy and the union between Aurora and Desire she oversees -- that puts things right in the individual soul, between the sexes, and in society as a whole.

ABT's new production (the premiere took place in Chicago last February), as staged by Kenneth MacMillan, the company's artistic associate, with scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis, is admirably respectful of Petipa's choreography and the grandiosity of his conception. It's the second, deeper level of the ballet, as a parable of spiritual awakening and fulfilment, that seems slighted.

Virtually every aspect of the staging is a mixed blessing. Take the celebrated series of solo variations for Lilac and her five attendant Fairies in the ballet's Prologue, which depicts Aurora's christening, the fatal curse by the outraged evil fairy Carabosse, and Lilac's amelioration of the sentence from death to a hundred years' sleep. The variations introduce the fairies and the special gifts they bring to the infant Aurora.

The fairy variations are at once a rich opportunity for a company's demisoloist dancers and a severe test of their mettle. On the technical side, ABT passes the test with flying colors -- it's rare indeed to see these variations danced with the kind of consistent security and skill exhibited by Thursday night's lineup.

But how many of these dancers made you feel you were watching fairies -- supernatural beings, standing for the graces of manner and character that good upbringing would bestow upon Aurora -- instead of athletic, level-headed, modern-day young women dressed up in so much diaphanous tulle? Only Jennet Zerbe, to some extent, as the Fairy of Serenity; Bonnie Moore, as the Fairy of Generosity; and Leslie Browne, as Lilac. Browne, however, was not only quite shaky in her balances, but projected surprisingly little of the benevolent radiance this dramatically crucial role demands -- perhaps it was just an off night for her.

The shortcomings of the other fairies were those of the production as a whole -- it's a facsimile, reproducing surfaces but not spirit. It seemed to me this pertained as well to McKerrow's exquisitely danced Aurora. She gave the role as much elegance of line, clarity of step, and graciousness of phrasing as one could ask, and even a distinct sense of growth from the adolescent of the Rose Adagio to the mature Princess of Act III's grand pas de deux. Yet her Aurora remained basically a well-tutored simulacrum -- not cold, exactly, but rather passionless.

McKenzie, who cut a gallant figure as Desire, was his usual noble, deferential self as a partner, and danced with exceptionally assured virtuosity. Still, his best efforts were almost defeated by a ludicrous-looking wig.

MacMillan's staging faithfully presents what is known of the traditional Petipa choreography, and in MacMillan's own few, dramatically justified emendations -- e.g., the Garland Dance of Act I, the "Gold" solo among the gemstone variations of Act III -- he works unobtrusively within the stylistic conventions of Petipa's era.

But MacMillan, I think, goes over the rails in several key instances. One is the choice of heavy-handed Georgiadis as the designer of the ballet's scenery and costumes. The oppressive browns of the de'cor -- especially in the bordering mock masonry that reappears in each act -- weigh down the ballet's spirit, while the clutter of fanciful rococo scrollwork and suspended angels robs the stage of the spaciousness so important to the pictorial buoyancy of "Sleeping Beauty."

The treatment of Carabosse as a gross caricature of England's Queen Elizabeth I, moreover, introduces a chillingly perverse and gratuitous note. Even more out of key with Tchaikovsky and Petipa is the look of her bald-masked minions, who seem not just gremlins of evil but grotesques out of some expressionist nightmare.

Of all the characters on stage, the one who seemed most deeply attuned to the innocent enchantment of the "Sleeping Beauty" of one's dreams was poor Cattalabutte, the egregious Master of Ceremonies whose bumbling results in near catastrophe, as winningly portrayed by ABT Associate Director John Taras. The more the rest of the company can approximate his sense of conviction about the ballet, the more rewarding will the new production prove.