The 1988 Ice Capades, at Capital Centre through Feb. 28, is not only new but thoroughly improved. This is the first edition to come to Washington since Thomas K. Scallan took the troupes over from Metromedia last year, and the changes are all for the better. Gone are the glitz and bombast that were always more appropriate to the circus; in their place are grace and athleticism augmented, but not overwhelmed, by tasteful production. This show owes a lot more to Vienna than to Las Vegas.

There are no big names here, though 1984 Olympians Carol Fox and Richard Dalley are the current world professional ice dance champions. Still, anyone enamored of the current Olympics will not be at all disappointed by the consistent high quality of the skating here. Both Fox and Dalley and the other featured pair, Tony Paul and Terry Pagona, are that mesmerizing mix of power and grace, while Tom Dickson and former Swedish champion Catarina Lingren shine in their solo turns (and spins and splits and so on).

There are two excellent production numbers. "Noir et Blanc (A Chess Fantasy in Black and White)" starts off with spotlights forming a chessboard on the ice, while huge chess pieces move around with ghostly precision; it's like 3-D computer graphics and wonderfully mysterious. Eventually the skaters emerge and the match is continued by assorted ice gambits. The "Salute to Hollywood," which would have been a hackneyed effort under the old management, offers Busby Berkeley's elaborate ensembles, romance and illusion, a Little Tramp vignette that contains both strobe-lit humor and poignancy, and some delirious slapstick that will leave many people high but not dry.

Since these are nice Capades, there's also a bow to the Smurfs in "Smurf Rock," which is charming and lighthearted in contrast to past productions, in which the "kid quota" always seemed to underestimate the kids and absolutely disregard the parents. Both groups also get a lot out of "The Race to Number One," in which assorted skaters work out to pop hits. At yesterday morning's show, the 10,000 voices (most of them high) spontaneously joined in sweetly on Whitney Houston's "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and Los Lobos' "La Bamba," which produced some particularly exuberant choruses.

For sheer excitement, Steve Taylor was the winner as he jumped over barrels and Chrysler vans and through a ring of fire. Each succeeding feat elicited gasps and cheers; it sounded like a succession of sudden-death goals.

At 2 1/2 hours, the program is a little long, but directors Scallan and Willey Bietak have still come up with the Ice Capades' best show in many years. Jeff Billings' costumes are clever, never cloying. The sets and the lighting, by Robert W. Rang and Simon Miles respectively, are subtle and supportive, reinforcing the many ballets being brought to life on the ice. And Sarah Kawahara's choreography is at times supple and at other times muscular. This is an Ice Capades with great substance and also a great deal of charm.