American Ballet Theatre's board voted unanimously yesterday to authorize the executive committee to disband the company if no satisfactory labor agreement is reached with dancers before rehearsals begin next week, board Chairman Charles Dyson confirmed last night.

Dyson said the company, which has long been the nation's prime stronghold and showcase for classical ballet, is $4 million in debt. But Dyson said the ABT's money problems were not the only reason for the decision. "It's partly {money}. That's the only thing I want to talk about," he said.

Asked whether he expects the company to survive, Dyson said, "I don't know whether it can or not."

Leonard Leibowitz, an attorney representing the dancers, said he takes the board's threat to disband "very seriously."

Leibowitz said the dancers were offered a three-year package that would freeze wages in the first year. It would also cut per diems and terminate a hard-won concession giving the dancers single rooms when they travel. "That's more than a money issue. That's a quality of life issue for a company that lives on the road," Leibowitz said.

He declined to say what the dancers' counteroffer had been. "It's really not appropriate to go through specifics," he said. Asked whether the dancers would accept a wage freeze, he said, "It depends on the package. I'm not saying that anything is impossible."

Leibowitz blamed the board for the ABT's financial dilemma. "The real issue is not whether there is money in the bank," he said. "The issue is what kind of commitment is the board prepared to make to raise money as they ought to have been raising money all this time. They have not gone out and done a fund-raising job." The board has treated the company "like a mom-and-pop store."

Dyson said the board is "seeking a fair contract." He contended that the dancers did not respond to a contract offer made several months ago. "I don't know what they have in mind," he said.

The dancers' contract expired Oct. 31 and they are due to begin rehearsals Tuesday.

Leibowitz said the company has countered the board's offer but discussions broke off three weeks ago. The two sides are scheduled to meet today to discuss yesterday's action by the board, he said.

Jane Hermann, director of the company, acknowledged that the board's action was "extraordinarily drastic," but said, "It may not be as important as it may sound. ... The board was trying to empower the executive committee to make a decision." She noted that the board also authorized the executive committee to ratify a contract.

"We very much intend to settle," she said, adding that she could not identify any single issue as a sticking point in the negotiations. She also said in authorizing the action by the executive committee, the board was attempting to "streamline" the process and that the full board does not plan to meet on this issue again. "We're in a limbo state. We had to determine where the power lies."

Asked whether she thought the company would disband, Hermann said, "Oh no, I would hope not."

Another source close to the board said that the action yesterday had been anticipated for some time because of the failure of fund-raising efforts. "The fund-raising just didn't meet any of the goals of last year. It's a choice of restricting the company in its artistic achievements or cutting back costs. No one wants to restrict the artistic achievements," the source said.

Hermann said that fund-raising last year was "in excess of what had been expected." She said the board raised about $7 million, nearly $1 million more than its goal. Still, she continued, that was not enough to deal with the accumulated debt.

Dyson said money is coming into the strapped company "in dribs and drabs."

"If you know some white knight who has $4 million or $5 million, have him call me," he said.

Founded in 1939 by Richard Pleasant, ABT was directed by Oliver Smith (currently one of the troupe's two directors, along with Hermann) and the late Lucia Chase from 1945 until 1980. That year, the great Soviet expatriate dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov took over as artistic director, until his abrupt resignation in the fall of '89 after an acrimonious battle with Hermann.

The company's vast and eclectic artistic repertory has included the major historical ballet classics, but also the pioneering work of American choreographers the troupe has championed -- Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Eugene Loring, the late Antony Tudor, Eliot Feld, and more recently, Twyla Tharp.

ABT is currently a company of some 90 dancers, with an annual budget of around $18 million. It has experienced periodic sieges of economic distress since the start, sometimes bringing the company to the brink of collapse.

A company lockout of the dancers in 1982, for instance, led to the cancellation of a month-long engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House that year, before the dispute was resolved.

In recent years, too, abrasion between the artistic director and the board of directors has surfaced repeatedly. This led Baryshnikov, some years back, to relinquish his salary in order to secure full autonomy as artistic head. After Baryshnikov left, Hermann scaled back a projected budget of $22 million to $18 million to avert fiscal disaster.

ABT is scheduled to begin its 1990-91 national tour with a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House Jan. 15-27.

Staff writer Alan M. Kriegsman contributed to this story.