"Le Corsaire" is a great casserole of a ballet, a mix of pirates, pashas and bikini-topped concubines, with both bravura solo displays and ensemble dancing of cool classicism. As American Ballet Theatre presents it in the "Dance in America" special tonight on PBS's "Great Performances" (Channels 22 and 26 at 9), it's a magnificently performed gala event.

It is also an argument for ballet's enduring theatrical power. There's all the lavishness of opera, loads of color and pageantry, and the added appeal only a premier company like ABT can offer: a youth-and-beauty cast of technical dynamos. It all adds up to a rare, glittering spectacle.

At times the company can't decide whether to take the three-act ballet seriously or take it over the top. Mostly this production leans toward the latter approach, aiming to appeal to an audience unfamiliar with ballet by downplaying any esoterics and accentuating the friendly accessibility of the cast.

"It's a little bit of Errol Flynn, a little bit of Leonardo DiCaprio and a little bit of 'The Arabian Nights,' " says Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director.

Whether all those elements can contentedly reside in one work of theater is questionable, however, and this is the production's main drawback. It paints in broad strokes--there's not a lot of nuance here.

But the indisputable high points are very nearly intoxicating. Ethan Stiefel leads the cast as the pirate Conrad, and injects the role with a dashing, Flynnlike flair. He tends to mug in his close-ups and force his jumps, but for all his rough roguishness, his dancing is cleanly, academically correct.

Potomac native Julie Kent is the slave Medora, whom Conrad spies at a Middle Eastern bazaar and is determined to possess. With her melting lyricism, delicacy and air of uncompromising refinement, she adds quite a lot of class.

Other top dancers fill out the rest of the leading roles: Angel Corella, with his famed whizzing leaps, as Conrad's slave Ali; Vladimir Malakhov as the slave merchant Lankendem, who runs the bazaar; Paloma Herrera as Medora's friend Gulnare; and Joaquin de Luz as Birbanto, Conrad's fellow swashbuckler.

Of course, with all of its characters, the plot is somewhat intricate, and ABT turns that into a running joke. In giggly offstage interviews, the dancers attempt to piece together the story. We even hear (repeatedly) from the wardrobe supervisor. Finally, Assistant Artistic Director David Richardson declares: "The plot? The plot is not what's important in this ballet. What's important is the dancing."

Excuse me?

I'm not sure that it's wise for ABT to be portraying its ranks as ace artists without the sense to know how they all fit together into the tale. Wouldn't one expect actors in, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company to look beyond their lines to see the big picture and convey a sense of motivation and consequence and dramatic tension?

Besides, they make too much of the impenetrability of the story, which is based on an 1814 Byron poem. It is basically this: The impulsive Conrad falls in love with the fair Medora, but her owner, Lankendem, sells her to the Pasha. Then Conrad's slave Ali sneaks off with her, returning her to Conrad's arms. Conrad's not-too-faithful chum Birbanto schemes to capture Medora. Birbanto brings Medora to the Pasha, Conrad breaks into the Pasha's palace to rescue her, and they sail off together in his pirate vessel.

"Le Corsaire" is most popularly known nowadays for an excerpt, a duet adapted from the second act. ABT's full-length production, staged by Boston Ballet Director Anna-Marie Holmes, derives from the version unveiled in Russia in the late 1800s by the great classical choreographer Marius Petipa. Petipa was the creative force behind "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and several dozen other big ballets; he knew how to make the most of the basic formula and of the talents of his ballerinas.

"Le Corsaire" is a kind of a Petipa sampler--there are hearty folk dances, smoothly interlacing lines of tutus and rounds of pirouettes and turns that were so dazzling in his day. Whipped together as they are in this production, they are every bit as dazzling now. While one might wish for more poetry over the pizzazz, there's no denying the transporting powers of pirates and pretty women.