Her swan tutu is off, the comfy orange and brown coverup is on, and the Band-Aids have been peeled from her blistered toes. In her dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera House, Amanda McKerrow is winding down from one of the last performances of her 23-year career with American Ballet Theatre.

After tomorrow's performance, McKerrow, who grew up in Rockville and began her career with the Washington Ballet, will retire from ABT, and she wants to relish every one of her final moments on the stage. But on this particular night, she is coughing and hoarse, sick with a cold. Under the reddish-gold mane of her hair, her shoulders shudder every time she barks into a tissue. The essence of ethereal, unblemished beauty just minutes ago in an excerpt from "Swan Lake," McKerrow now has a Goth-babe-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil look. She has wiped one eye clean of makeup, and in contrast the other one, still rimmed with black eyeliner and fringed with thick false lashes, is huge. Her small face with its single prominent eye takes on a Picasso kind of disproportion.

But this is no time for vanity. There is a knock on the door. In sweeps the venerated former ballerina Irina Kolpakova, McKerrow's coach, who -- in the cherished ballet tradition of experienced elders passing the art form down to the young -- has overseen her rehearsals for nearly a decade.

"Amandashka, it was beee-ooooteeful," Kolpakova purrs in a thick Russian accent, taking McKerrow's face in her hands and planting a kiss. "But why you do this?" She begins to pick apart McKerrow's dancing, zeroing in on one moment when, finishing a turn, McKerrow found herself too close to her partner and had to make an adjustment to a step.

It had been all but imperceptible to the audience, but Kolpakova and McKerrow dissect the misstep at length, more in movement than in words. Extending one slender orange leg behind her in a lunge that easily spans half the room, then rising up in a half-turn, McKerrow shows the older woman how she got into the predicament. Kolpakova proposes a string of options for a smoother transition while McKerrow watches attentively, nodding in earnest agreement.

"Yes, you're right, I'll do that next time," she croaks, trying to stifle a cough and failing. They hug, and Kolpakova leaves. McKerrow sits back down with a contented sigh. "Well, I don't know what I'd do without her," she says to her visitor, sounding not the least bit bothered by having her mentor point out the imperfections of a performance in which she managed to look astonishingly lovely considering how awful she feels.

Ballet is not for the thin-skinned.

But even in this masochistic arena, McKerrow -- barely 100 pounds of devotional purpose -- has raised the ability to withstand pain to an art form.

McKerrow's performance of the title role in "Giselle" tomorrow will cap a career of uncommon distinction. She has interpreted just about every leading role in ABT's repertoire of story ballets -- "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Don Quixote," "Coppelia" and "Romeo and Juliet," among others. Her elasticity and musical instincts have been put to use in a healthy portion of contemporary works by such diverse masters as George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Clark Tippet and even the spare modernist Merce Cunningham.

She rocketed to worldwide renown in 1981 when, at 17, she became the first American ever to win a gold medal at the famed Moscow International Ballet Competition. Part of a rotating circuit of elite competitions, the Moscow contest is held every four years and, until McKerrow showed up, it had historically favored Soviet competitors. The young American's upset was the artistic equivalent of the U.S. hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" Olympic victory against the Soviets the year before. McKerrow, who at the time was a Washington Ballet apprentice -- not yet a full company member -- and had hardly ventured beyond it and her family's home in Rockville, became an instant international sensation.

It all seemed to come so easily to the waifish dancer with a steely sense of self-discipline. Talk to the teachers and colleagues who have known McKerrow throughout her years as one of ABT's stars and during her youth and you hear the same thing over and over: She was born to be a dancer. Born to ballet. Endowed not only with pleasing physical proportions -- long limbs, high waist, small head atop a slender neck and sloping shoulders -- but also with those elements of the art that cannot be taught, qualities such as musical sensitivity, honest and unmannered expressiveness, natural agility.

"She is one of the most coordinated people ever in the art form," says ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, a frequent McKerrow partner. "There's a lot of people who have talent, but the basic element is you have to be coordinated. You can work on that, but if you have it naturally, like Amanda does, it allows things to happen out of nowhere, or a bad spot to transition into something beautiful. . . . She was blessed with an innate sense of movement and being able to execute steps without having to punch them and muscle them. She's been given a gift."

Where other ballerinas may possess a more dazzling arsenal of technical strengths -- turns, jumps, balances -- McKerrow's hallmark has always been her classical refinement and poetic subtlety. Her style of dancing is not grandiose, but it is deeply lyrical and has a sense of ease and calm about it. It may be often said that McKerrow was born to be a dancer, but she knows that is not so. McKerrow was born to be something else entirely.

A Turning Point

Her life was shaped by a tragedy that happened two years before her birth, when the eldest of her parents' four children, a 14-year-old daughter, was murdered while walking home from school. The killer was a classmate who had asked her for a date and was turned down. The McKerrows lived then in Albuquerque, where the father, Alan, led a jazz band. In the storm of misery that engulfed the family, the decision was made to have another baby. Amanda was the replacement child, conceived to fill the agonizing void.

"Obviously," she says over brunch the morning after her performance of Act 2 of "Swan Lake," "I was born to help my mom get over this."

To distance themselves from the crime, the McKerrows moved to Rockville; Alan McKerrow had taken a job as an administrator at the National Institutes of Health. "He hated it," Amanda McKerrow says. "But he gave up the band to support the family."

"It's so much a part of my life," she says of her sister's murder, about which she has rarely spoken publicly. She was a closely guarded child, she says -- always driven back and forth to school -- and also an extremely sensitive one. "I'm slightly obsessive-compulsive about things. I was always very anxious."

Ballet became the perfect outlet for the high-strung girl. She started dancing at age 6, taking after-school classes at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary in Rockville, balancing against the tray racks in the cafeteria.

"I just fell in love with it," she says. "I was a pretty intense child. I worried a lot. But as soon as I started dancing, it gave me a focus to put that into."

When she was 9, her sister was riding her around on the handlebars of her bike and hit a bump. Amanda fell off and broke a bone in her foot. (Of course, a dancer can't just talk about an injury. As easily as you might extend your hand, McKerrow raises her leg above the breakfast table to show the spot on her instep that snapped.) With her foot in a cast, Amanda was miserable. Finally back in ballet class, she felt alive again, and her mother vowed to keep her there, no matter what it did to the family routines.

"I made their lives hell. Even if I was sick, I had to go. . . . I didn't really fit in in high school or junior high; I was very shy. But I felt comfortable in the studio. That's where I felt okay."

All legs and pulled-up posture, with a floating kind of bounce to her walk, McKerrow looks as if she could be nothing in life but a ballerina. At 41, she has a demure, girlish look, wearing jeans and a cardigan over a blouse, her long frizzy hair in a ponytail.

She sounds better than she did the night before, pausing now and then to cough delicately behind slender fingers stacked with rings. She has tiny hands.

Young Amanda went on to the Twinbrook School of Ballet and eventually landed at the Washington School of Ballet, where after two years Mary Day, director of both the school and the professional company, decided to take her to the ballet world's most prestigious event.

The Moscow competition took place only a year after President Carter had ordered a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics being held in that city in retaliation for the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Given the anti-American feeling in Moscow, McKerrow's top honor came as a particular surprise. Especially shocked was Day, who says she brought McKerrow to the competition primarily to watch the other dancers and learn from them.

"I thought at the last minute she might as well be prepared with a couple of selections, and maybe she'd go through the first round and feel the Bolshoi stage under her feet," Day said last week. But after McKerrow performed the tender, delicate "Prelude" section of Michel Fokine's "Les Sylphides," Day realized her dancer was connecting with the ballet-savvy audience on an unusually emotional level.

"There was an old lady backstage in a work outfit, and she came running toward Amanda and threw her arms around her neck and sobbed and sobbed," Day said. "It was something that brought back to her the old days, because [the Russian dancers] were not doing this quality in 'Sylphides.' "

In one of life's wonderful circularities, Kolpakova was one of the judges. With many dancers' emphasis on strength and technique, "sometimes we see circus" at the competition, she said by phone recently. "Amanda is absolutely not. I saw artist -- this is very important."

But what ought to have been a happy homecoming became nerve-racking, McKerrow recalls. Never terribly confident about her abilities, she was haunted by the fear that she would let everyone down -- that she would walk onstage at the many performances she was invited to post-Moscow and reveal that all the acclaim had been a terrible mistake.

"It kind of freaked me out, actually," she says. "I just didn't think I was good enough; I thought people were going to see that."

Added to her worries was this: Shortly before leaving for Moscow, McKerrow had taken a phone call from an Albuquerque reporter seeking her parents' reaction to the possibility that their firstborn's killer, now serving prison time for another crime, might be paroled. With all the press attention on Amanda's medal, the McKerrows feared that their daughter's killer might find his way to their door.

McKerrow dealt with the anxiety the way she always did: She went back to work in the studio. She danced with the Washington Ballet for another year before Mikhail Baryshnikov, then director of ABT, called to offer her a contract after seeing her perform.

McKerrow progressed rapidly at ABT. After a year she was promoted to the middle rank of soloist -- and then, inexplicably, the good roles stopped coming.

Not sure why she had fallen out of favor, she screwed up her courage and asked for a meeting with Baryshnikov. He gave her a list of complaints about her technique and told her: Work on these things in class, and then we'll see. McKerrow says she left his office feeling shattered, but she followed his advice. Several months later she was cast as the lead in Balanchine's difficult, dazzling "Theme and Variations."

"I think I stopped sleeping a month before, I was so nervous," she says.

And of Baryshnikov: "I never, ever mistrusted him again."

Highs and Lows

The Baryshnikov years (he stepped down in 1989) were golden ones for McKerrow. He partnered her in her very first "Giselle," a performance that unspooled "like magic," she says. Sweet Giselle, who suffers a fatal heartbreak when her betrothed betrays her, then rises from the grave to forgive him and rescue him from disaster, remains a treasured role. It is also one of her artistic glories, where the sense of yearning to make things right, that dulcet sincerity that permeates her dancing, is given greatest expression.

"It's the closest to my heart of all the full-lengths, the first one I did that felt right," she says. "Everything that's happened in my life has been able to deepen my portrayal."

McKerrow, promoted to principal in 1987, became a favorite of some of the leading choreographers of the age: de Mille, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and especially Tudor, whose skill in depicting the turbulent inner lives of his characters especially appealed to her. She also met and married fellow dancer John Gardner, her first boyfriend, whom she credits with sustaining her when tastes changed at ABT and McKerrow's nuanced, dramatically sensitive dancing lost points to a more dynamic, extroverted, all-purpose style that had always been popular in the company but grew increasingly evident under current ABT Director Kevin McKenzie.

Like McKerrow, McKenzie was a Washington Ballet alum; he had also frequently danced with McKerrow before he retired from the stage. But as the 21st century dawned, ABT had become a different entity: It had developed a large executive branch, and an emphasis on education and outreach, that left the artistic side scrambling for its share of funds. Sponsorships, in which donors underwrite individual dancers, became the new fashion at ABT, as well as at many other companies nationwide. All dancers face a loss of roles as they age, but McKerrow believes that outside pressures affected casting and other artistic decisions.

"I don't envy Kevin his position," McKerrow says. "It's hard working for someone who was once your partner. Politically, I probably didn't play my cards real well. I have to be honest -- I didn't like what I saw happening. I take a lot of blame for this. I was very supportive of [McKenzie] becoming director, but I got a little disappointed in things he did. . . . I thought my work should speak for me."

McKenzie, asked to comment, skirted the subject of McKerrow's infrequent performances in an e-mail: "Amanda's artistry is rooted in a respect for the theatre. Although she is probably one of the most coordinated individuals walking the face of the earth, she never flaunted her technique. One was always left with the impression that the music was inspiring her gifts, and that she was grateful for such an experience. And we, her audience, were grateful that we were there to witness it."

But even as she began dancing less, it is in the last few years that McKerrow has most distinguished herself from other ballerinas with her unembellished simplicity of movement and purity of expression. Injuries continued to plague her: the usual dancer's insults to muscles and joints, as well as more serious, long-term conditions. A few years ago, arthritis in her hip forced her to stop performing the full-length "Swan Lake," with its exhausting series of whipping turns on one leg. She underwent knee surgery a decade ago, and was on anti-inflammatory medication for so long that she developed an ulcer. Her lower back is chronically tender from a long-ago sacrum sprain that went undiagnosed.

As her ABT performances thinned, McKerrow began dancing again with the Washington Ballet. She and her husband performed regularly at the invitation of Artistic Director Septime Webre; they also accompanied the troupe on its history-making trip to Cuba in 2000. The couple had considered heading the Washington School of Ballet after Day retired from it last year, but differences with Webre over matters of technique and style caused them to withdraw their names.

Webre, however, said he hopes to bring McKerrow and Gardner back to Washington on occasion as guest artists and coaches.

"I don't think there is a real difference in our point of view," he said. "What we're about is a classical institution which is forward-thinking and whose foundational technique is pure classical ballet. I think she just misunderstood my point of view, which is unfortunate because our points of view are so similar."

Like anyone who has devoted her life to a field she loves, McKerrow dreaded giving up her job at ABT, though she knew she was past the customary age of ballerina retirement. "I really do love dancing," she says. "But I don't want to look -- bad. That's a fine line to walk. . . . You don't really know you've waited too long until you've waited too long."

As she contemplates taking her last curtain call on the grand Met stage, what comforts her is that she will continue to work in the studio. Stiefel, her dance partner, has chosen to split his time between performing with ABT and directing a small but ambitious company called Ballet Pacifica in California's Orange County. He has asked McKerrow and Gardner to oversee the school and company during his absences. The couple have put their Upper West Side apartment on the market and will move out west in September.

The time is right to leave the East Coast, McKerrow says. Her parents' strength and support were a constant inspiration to her, she says, but both are gone now. Her father died eight years ago; her mother, to whom McKerrow was devoted, died in May.

The prospect of molding young talent makes McKerrow grin like a delighted child. She has been teaching for some time at a school called Ballet Academy East, where her husband, who left ABT four years ago, is on staff. She says working with students has been the key to getting through the past few rocky years.

"I don't know if I would've been dancing this long if I hadn't started teaching," she says. "You can get disillusioned and bogged down with the politics of this business. But there's something very pure and sincere and naive in the kids."

Listening to her outline her ambitions for Ballet Pacifica, it is clear that she savors a return to that safe, reflective place where she found solace so early in life.

"It brings back everything I really love about dancing, because that's all I could think about when I was a kid." She looks away, laughs and shakes her head, lost in memory for a moment. "It's a funny spell it puts on you."

And as for her years onstage, from rocking the ballet world as a teenager to a quiet, bittersweet finish, McKerrow turns philosophical:

"I really don't have a lot to complain about. I had a long career; I met my soul mate. I'm really very fortunate."

Amanda McKerrow, shown rehearsing this week, will close her 23-year career with American Ballet Theatre tomorrow night by dancing "Giselle," the role closest to her heart.

Amanda McKerrow pauses outside the Metropolitan Opera House.

McKerrow and her husband, John Gardner, rehearsing for the Washington Ballet's "American Icons" program in 2001.

A 17-year-old McKerrow speaks to the media in Washington after her 1981 triumph in Moscow. With her are dance partner Simon Dow and ballet mentor Mary Day.