Uh-oh, one thought after glancing at the program for the Dance Theatre of Harlem on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. First on the bill was "Stabat Mater," a new work by Michael Smuin, inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks. Make way for melodrama.

Girding oneself for grief-on-demand proved unnecessary, however. "Stabat Mater" is no masterpiece, but the 20-minute work, set to Antonin Dvorak's "Stabat mater dolorosa," is a clean, classically based exercise that showed a gorgeously fluid, sweeping side to the dancers. It is certainly the best ballet the company has presented at the Kennedy Center in some seasons.

Followed as it was by a forgettable duet by Loyce Houlton from the '70s, a bloodless performance of George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son" and the routine closer "Firebird," the Smuin work was the only reason to see this program, which repeats tonight.

As the central couple among five others, Tai Jimenez and Eric Underwood kept their emotions in check, for the most part, and let the rising and falling tides in the movement speak of love and separation. They were a poignant pair, capable of genuine warmth in addition to technical finesse. Underwood, especially, colored his dancing with airiness and ease.

There were some cliched moments -- a line of women opening their arms in a domino effect, for instance -- and the work didn't maintain a strong dramatic pull all the way through. But the atmosphere was just right, prayerful but not oppressive. The women wore long, simply cut gowns, reminiscent of those in Balanchine's "Serenade," and soft slippers, so they moved in silence. The ballet ended on an eloquent note: After a last embrace, Underwood fades into the upstage darkness, leaving Jimenez alone, and the others, circled around her, drop to their knees as if in deference to her grief.

Perhaps Houlton's "Wingborne" made some kind of statement 30 years ago when the Minnesota Dance Theatre premiered it. Now it is simply a relic from That '70s Era. The backdrop looked like twin spots of dripping motor oil. Amy Johnson and Kip Sturm wore lavender spandex festooned with tassels. Sturm's tassel adorned a part of the male anatomy that a man in tights need not draw attention to.

As for the dancing, he was a forklift and she was the payload. Sometimes she lifted a leg, sometimes she curled up like a rock. The duet has been in the DTH repertoire since 1982, and, since it is accompanied by Dvorak's "Waldesruhe (Silent Woods)," was dusted off as a companion piece to the Smuin. May it hereafter rest in peace.

Keith Saunders's Mount Everest of a Father was the highlight of "The Prodigal Son." As solid, wise-looking and stage-dominating as he was, one could see why an ambitious boy on the cusp of adulthood would need to break away from that man's orbit in order to test himself. But in the title role, Duncan Cooper lacked authority -- he was too much the likable, puppyish youth, without fire. Caroline Rocher was an especially glamorous Siren, but all her power seemed to end at the tips of her lovely eyelashes. She just wasn't enough of a killer.

Why did the company cap this minimally interesting program with the umpty-umpth production of "Firebird," you might ask? The 20-year-old ballet appears here year after year because it is strongly identified with the company, it's showy and sparkly while still rooted in classical ballet and, the company insists, it is a ticket-seller. Yet judging by the empty seats after the second intermission, many patrons had decided that enough's enough of that old bird.

The company is in critical need of fresh repertoire, and this is a rotten time to find it. Arts executives agree that the current shrinking economy puts the existence of many dance companies at serious risk. DTH's financial problems, which plagued the group before the markets started to slide, have been well documented. And high-quality choreography doesn't come cheap -- it needs underwriters, which are in lamentably short supply.

But DTH Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell will not spur the public's interest -- and donor activity -- with his troupe at an artistic standstill. He's caught in a downward spiral that threatens to pull the organization under. One's heart goes out to him and his superb dancers. As it is, sitting through a DTH program has started to feel uncomfortably like a gesture of goodwill.

The company presents a second repertory program Friday through Sunday.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem's Caroline Rocher and Duncan Cooper in "Prodigal Son," above, and Bethania Gomes in the warhorse "Firebird."