It is a lovely fall morning, but Mary Day, grande dame of Washington dance, is distraught. And no wonder: She thinks this story will shroud half a century of artistic effort in a sugarplum haze.

"The timing is so wrong," she is saying. "The emphasis should not be on this season."

She is an artist, a teacher, a visionary. She has identified and nurtured some of the country's most famous dancers and almost single-handedly carved out a place for ballet in this city's cultural landscape. Yet Christmas after Christmas, it comes down to this: Mary Day still has to tackle "The Nutcracker."

When the curtain goes up this Friday at the Warner Theatre, it will mark the 33rd year she has presented the holiday classic. The 33rd year she has spent eight frantic weekends getting dozens of her students -- little mice, big mice, toy soldiers, party children, each role cast in triplicate -- ready to perform. The 33rd year of worrying about sick kids, transportation hassles, scenery fiascoes, costumes that are too big or too small. The 33rd year of sitting through 23 performances -- "an unbelievable number of performances," she says -- at times growing so weary that, slouched in a chair in the darkened theater, she will "check out" from sheer fatigue.

"I'd rather not have to do it," she says with a shrug. "Once you get on a 'Nutcracker' kick, you never get off it."

DAY'S "NUTCRACKER" has become more than just a holiday ballet. It is a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation. It is a showcase for some of the 400 young performers she trains at the Washington School of the Ballet. And, as the largest single source of revenue in the Washington Ballet's $2.8 million budget, it allows Day, through the 20-member professional company she launched in 1976, to present the kind of innovative dance programming most "Nutcracker" patrons never come to see.

That's why Day doesn't want this story, which has been in the works for months, published now. She believes it will reinforce the notion that the Washington Ballet is a nice little school troupe that puts on the "Nutcracker" each year -- period. What she'd rather have exposed is the company's other identity, that of a small, experimental group that takes creative risks and stages contemporary works by up-and-coming artists. The group that spawned such stars as James Canfield and Patricia Miller and introduced audiences to the groundbreaking choreography of the late Choo-San Goh. The company Day calls "the best-kept secret in Washington." In the nation's capital, where every season brings new and much-ballyhooed visitors, the hometown troupe is almost always regarded as second best. And that, more than anything, makes Day see red. "We have a small repertory company, and it should never be thought of or compared in any way to the many national and international imports brought into the city. We're not doing the same thing at all," she says, her dark eyes snapping. "When they come here, you see hordes of people, members of Congress, et cetera. We don't have any of that. Somehow or other, you're very envious."

It is a sentiment shared by the dancers, who are quick to point out that when they are the visitors, things are different.

"When we go out and we're seen around the world, our audiences are totally thrilled," says John Goding, a 17-year veteran. "Somehow here in Washington, we can be doing something very innovative, something that is taking a chance and something that is interesting to watch, and we'll get lambasted for making those choices. Our company has a better reputation than a lot of the companies that come to Washington. For some reason, we don't get the attention."

Day herself knows one of the reasons all too well: "Because we started as a school and became rather renowned as a school, that's where the emphasis has always been," she explains.

Another reason might be that after a first decade in which Goh, the resident choreographer, made headlines all over the world for the works he created for the company, no one has yet emerged with his power to draw the spotlight.

And a third reason for the lack of attention might be that Day doesn't ask for it. The school, which has attracted the likes of Caroline Kennedy and Chelsea Clinton, has never done much advertising -- "word of mouth, you know, they just come," Day says -- and she herself prefers the dance studio to the soapbox. "She refuses to be marketed," observes Winnie Portenoy, a longtime member of the ballet's board of directors. "She could be very nicely, but she just won't be, if you know what I mean. She wouldn't be Mary Day, I suppose, if she were willing."

IT IS 10 O'CLOCK on a Monday morning in March, and Mary Day has just walked across the yard that separates her three-story town house from her office in the school, a low-slung white building at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Porter Street NW. A stack of letters and a large manila envelope are waiting. She breaks the seal on the envelope; out drops an 8-by-10 glossy of a dancer from Iceland, frozen in mid-jete. He wants to audition for a berth in the professional company.

Day picks up the photograph, barely glancing at it before setting it aside. "He's not good enough," she says with a shake of her head. What's the problem? "Here" -- she points a finger at the dancer's outstretched back foot, held just a trifle too stiffly. "And here" -- she indicates his torso, thrust forward just a touch too aggressively. Time may have taken a toll on Mary Day's once limber body, but her eyes are as sharp as ever.

She is famous for those eyes. Not because they are big and dark and planted under high, penciled-in brows. Not because she can focus them with an intensity so ferocious that former pupil Shirley MacLaine told her she "could frighten a Cossack" with her stare. Not because they rarely offer clues as to what this most private of women is thinking. Because they have always been able to see things nobody else's could see.

Nearly 50 years ago, Mary Day saw that what Washington needed was a training school for ballet dancers. In the decades since, she has spotted the youthful promise in such future headliners as American Ballet Theater's Kevin McKenzie, Amanda McKerrow and Marianna Tcherkassky; Dance Theatre of Harlem's Virginia Johnson; Pacific Ballet Theatre's Canfield and Miller; and the Royal Ballet's Bonnie Moore. She detected, here in the nation's capital, a nascent audience for three-act ballets with live orchestral accompaniment. And finally, she envisioned a professional home for local dancers, a ballet company rooted in Washington that would grow up to claim its place among the city's cultural landmarks.

What Mary Day never saw -- what she still steadfastly refuses to acknowledge -- is anything that stands in her way. She is indomitable, a relentless juggernaut whose every ounce of seemingly boundless energy and every waking moment for as long as she can remember have been dedicated to just one purpose.

"It was always dance," she says simply. "It was what I centered in on. It was my mission in life."

She came to it early. As a child, she used to corral the neighborhood kids and get them to perform in her shows. "My real love was always teaching and directing and preparing people," she remembers. "I never would participate. I always stood in the back and presented them."

Day grew up in a house at 20th and F streets in Foggy Bottom, the youngest of four children. From her father, a decorator, she learned an appreciation for composition and line; from her mother, whom she describes as "a beautiful seamstress," the skills she would later put to use making costumes for the ballet.

Although she displays a near-total recall for long-ago names and events, she is sketchy about the details of her own past -- chief among them its duration. Calling herself "ageless," she firmly refuses to be dated; previously published guesses place her in the vicinity of 80.

Even so, she carries the years with ease. Except for a stiff-legged gait, the result of surgery to replace her right knee a few years ago, Day's body retains much of its youthful grace and athleticism. "I've never been one to pay much attention to any ailment," she declares, and watching her bustle up and down the hallways of the school -- peering into the three studios, demonstrating rapid-fire chasses at the barre, scooping up Jasmine, her beloved white Bedlington terrier -- it is tempting to believe she can keep up her determined pace forever.

She's been at it since 1944, the year she went into business with her friend and mentor, the late Lisa Gardiner. A ballerina with the Anna Pavlova Company, Gardiner had returned to her native Washington and opened a school near Dupont Circle -- "sort of a finishing school for Southern girls," recalls Day, who signed on as one of her pupils before being tapped to become her partner in a dance school of their own.

Even then, Day's ambition took a back seat to the desire to develop a local audience for her beloved art form. For all her artistic accomplishments, and the critical acclaim that has come with them, Day wears the mantle of grande dame a bit uncomfortably. Though she clearly enjoys (and has come to expect) the respect accorded her legendary status, she has never been driven to seek the limelight. In fact, when she and Gardiner opened their school, Day says, she insisted it not bear their names.

"My vision was to establish something here in the city that would be of quality and would live and be recognized for its contributions all over the world, which it is," she says. "There are some people who come into the school now who don't even know me. That's the way I've always wanted it to be. I want the organization to be so strong that it will stand on its own."

IRONICALLY, the popularity of "The Nutcracker" almost put Mary Day out of business. Her ballet school survived, but a residential academy she founded in 1962 -- the first institution in the United States to offer a complete high school curriculum along with dance training -- did not.

Day got the idea for the academy when she was invited to observe the workings of Moscow's famed Bolshoi Ballet school, the first American teacher to be so honored. Opening it was perhaps the most audacious thing she has ever done, and her decision to close it in 1976 still saddens her.

"It was a wonderful school, a top academic program," she says. Her pride in its success at turning out a generation of world-class dancers who were also well-rounded scholars -- among them, McKerrow, McKenzie and Tcherkassky -- is tempered by some lasting bitterness that so few people seemed to appreciate its value. "I've thought many times the city was very foolish to let that school close. It got no support in any way. {People} would give their support to the School of the American Ballet {in New York}, but not here."

It was another case of dismissing the locals. Much of the scholarship money that helped pay for the 45 students in residence came from revenues earned by the annual "Nutcracker" production. But with the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, Day -- who continued to present the Christmas ballet in its home at Lisner Auditorium until moving to the Warner last year -- had to share the holiday spotlight with "Nutcrackers" from such out-of-towners as the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theater. Faced with the prospect of "enormous deficits," she elected to pack away the schoolbooks rather than risk putting her dance program in jeopardy.

"It seems so unfair, because we were there first, and we've been there for so many years," she says. "They could have brought something else. They could have brought Dickens's 'Christmas Carol.' "

But Day, never one to stay discouraged for long, had another idea. At the time of the academy's demise, she had already been showcasing her students in productions for nearly two decades. As early as 1956, she and National Symphony Orchestra conductor Howard Mitchell joined to offer evenings of music and dance at Constitution Hall. "They were the first three-act ballets ever seen in the city," Day says of such popular favorites as "Cinderella," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Hansel and Gretel," which she is planning to present in an all-new version this spring.

Still, Washington lacked a professional dance company. Day was tired of shipping off her graduates to troupes in New York and Europe; before the last academy class dispersed, she was determined to provide a local performing outlet for the dancers she had so painstakingly trained.

What she had in mind, she says, was a "junior company" -- a chamber-size repertory ensemble that would take artistic chances and wouldn't require a lot of money or space. "I just wanted to find new choreographers and new choreographies, which the world needs desperately," Day remembers thinking. "And I hit the jackpot in finding Choo-San Goh."

AS THE HOUSE LIGHTS slowly come up inside a converted movie palace in the little town of Torrington, Conn., it is easy to see why Day's fondness for the bone-thin, long-legged classical ballet physique has earned her group the sobriquet of a "cookie-cutter company" within the dance world. Onstage, the dancers, a uniform line of sleek bodies poured into blood-red unitards, are taking their bows. It is the first stop on a three-city tour, and they have just completed a performance of "Fives," whose dramatic concluding segment, a dynamic abstraction for a cast of 15, nearly always brings down the house.

Known as the company's signature piece, "Fives" -- set to music by Ernest Bloch and danced in front of a giant "V" of red lights -- was created expressly for the Washington Ballet by Goh, resident choreographer from 1976 until his death in 1987. A young man of expansive talent -- he was just 39 when he died of complications from AIDS -- the Singapore-born Goh is widely credited with much of the company's early success. In the words of Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman, "It was Goh, both through his works and his relationship with the dancers, who supplied the creative ferment to put the Washington Ballet on the map."

During Goh's tenure -- first as choreographer, later as Day's associate artistic director -- the ballet established a reputation for exciting, innovative programming. His expressive, lyrical style, coupled with Day's exacting technical standards, drew notice not just here at home, where the fledgling troupe gained an enthusiastic following, but also in Europe, Asia and South America, where it toured to critical acclaim. Today, 10 of the 14 works he created for the company -- among them "In the Glow of the Night," "Birds of Paradise" and "Double Contrasts" -- remain the mainstays of its repertory, and the group continues to trade on his fame as a sort of living Goh archive.

By nearly all accounts, his death was a blow from which the Washington Ballet has yet to fully recover.

"When we lost Choo-San, we lost a big part of our personality," says Julie Miles, one of two founding members still in the troupe. "So much of the future and growth of this company was tied up with Choo-San," says Simon Dow, another dancer who worked with him in the early years. "It shook this organization to the bare roots."

Dow, who went on to star with the San Francisco and Boston ballets, came back to Washington last season to serve a stint as Day's artistic associate, the latest in a string of assistants she has hired in the wake of Goh's death. He recently left for New York, and his departure raises the question of who, if anyone, is being groomed to succeed Day as artistic director.

Since Goh, only one person has even come close. Kevin McKenzie was a star academy pupil whose career Day helped launch in 1972, when she shepherded him to a prize-winning performance in international ballet competition. After that, he embarked on an illustrious career, as a member of the Joffrey Ballet, then as a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater.

McKenzie spent seven years under Day's tutelage -- from the time he was 11 until he graduated at 18 -- and his mentor, who has never married or had children, speaks of him with a mother's warmth. So in 1989, when he signed on as the Washington Ballet's "permanent guest artist," it felt like more than just a homecoming. With his years of professional experience, his ties to Day and his budding career as a choreographer, he seemed the perfect choice to help guide the organization into the '90s.

"I fully intended my stay to be an apprenticeship that would lead to my being a director of the company," says McKenzie. But he got another offer -- late last year, he was lured back to New York to take the helm of a struggling American Ballet Theater. "It was a hard thing to say goodbye," he acknowledges.

For her part, if Day was disappointed by her protege's departure, she doesn't let on. "He was very happy, settled in with his house and his cats and everything, and Ballet Theater came along and dangled a carrot. He wanted to go along and save it if he could, so off he went . . .

"You don't want to keep 'em down on the farm if they don't want to stay, you know."

IT IS A PROBLEM for any regional company -- the loss of talent to larger organizations with higher profiles and deeper pockets. For Day, the challenge has been not only attracting top-notch dancers (current members are drawn from such troupes as the Joffrey, Boston, Cleveland and San Francisco ballets as well as from her school), but also providing them with enough creative stimulation and opportunity to keep them here.

That's one way the Washington Ballet's size may actually work to its advantage. "We don't do the old war horses. We don't do second act 'Swan Lake' or 'Sleeping Beauty' or any of those things," Day explains. "We don't have the size company to do the major classics." But the intimate ensemble pieces they are able to do offer dancers something many larger companies cannot: the chance to be seen.

With a subscriber base of about 1,300 and a new permanent home in the Kennedy Center for its annual winter, spring and fall series (it also performs three times a year on the campus of Goucher College), the ballet is steadily increasing its local presence. In addition to touring nationally and internationally, it is making a greater effort to capitalize on its roots in the community with such programs as the "Young Dancers," which sends performers into area schools, hospitals and the like, and "Ballets From Within," which invites patrons into the Wisconsin Avenue studios to see dances being created by company members.

The bulk of the troupe's new works, however, come from the outside, created by visiting choreographers such as Monica Levy, who in recent years has premiered two dances with the company. When it was introduced in 1991, her "Overstepping," set to a score that included crowd noises, splashing surf and snippets of German poetry, was hailed by dance critic Kriegsman as "the most exciting addition to company repertory in the way of new choreography since Goh's last efforts." Other works have been commissioned from Ray Barra, Judith Jamison and former Day pupil Clint Farha; the company has also acquired existing ballets from such acknowledged modern masters as George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch.

Elvi Moore, general director for the past decade, points out that the group's small budget limits the number and types of works it can present. She has kept the organization in the black throughout her tenure -- an achievement in these times of limited funding for the arts -- and she isn't about to jeopardize that by going too far out on a creative limb.

But if the group wants to keep to Day's original vision, it must risk just that. It must, in Kriegsman's words, "locate and enlist the most daring and iconoclastic talents, in ballet or contemporary idioms, local or national or international. The alternative," he says, "is to coast along in provincial timidity."

Day, for years the force that propelled the company, has lately scaled back her involvement, and now shares decision-making with Moore and Artistic Coordinator Rex Bickmore. And while the group continues to flourish -- its stand last month at the Kennedy Center was hailed as the brightest in recent seasons -- there is, at the moment, no single individual charged with laying a path for its artistic future.

"It would be wonderful if we found a resident choreographer from within, but I'm in no hurry," says Moore. "I think we've done quite well bringing people in and challenging the dancers." Others, recalling the creative spirit and growth of the Goh years, have suggested that the company would be well served by a young artistic visionary who could continually feed it with new ideas and energy.

It is sometimes difficult for Day to accept that even now, six years after Goh's passing, his shadow still looms so large over her company. "We all miss Choo-San, but we weren't responsible for him dying," she says. "We can't keep trying to bring Choo-San back."

MARY DAY is standing in the front hallway of the school, the ever-present Jasmine close at her heels. She is waiting, somewhat impatiently, for her afternoon class to arrive.

She is down to only two scheduled classes a week these days. It is a far cry from the countless years when she taught all day, rehearsed productions well into the evening, and then, sneaking down from the cozy apartment she used to inhabit on the school's top floor, danced alone in a darkened studio late at night, choreographing works for her students.

But she would never dream of abandoning the classroom. "I love to teach, and I get very itchy when I don't get in there," she says. Even after all these years, she can still get excited at the sight of a well-executed pirouette or the suppleness of a perfectly arched back. "I never get bored," she insists, adding, "I must be very peculiar."

Outfitted today in head-to-toe black -- rope-soled shoes, loose-fitting slacks and a cotton V-neck sweater that reveals a smooth-skinned chest and enviably firm upper arms -- Day cuts a formidable figure in the studio. And her businesslike style does little to dispel her image as a stern, if devoted, taskmaster.

Gripping the metal barre with both hands, Day begins by running through the steps she wants the students to execute, demonstrating them in a sort of brisk choreographic shorthand. With a nod of her head, she signals to the accompanist, who is perched with his piano on a tiny triangular balcony overhead. Then she takes a seat on a wooden bench at the front of the room and watches, hand on hip, chin thrust forward. Her eyes sweep across the young bodies in their navy-blue leotards, following their movements so closely it almost looks as if she is guiding them by will alone.

After the hour-and-15-minute class, Day heads back down the hall to her office, arriving half a step behind Jasmine, who snuggles into the plaid foam-rubber bed set against the wall behind the desk. It is late in the afternoon, and Day too is tired. But when you have a mission, there is always work to be done: applications for the next school session to review, individual progress reports for each student to complete, arrangements to make for the company's next tour.

She may not be able to answer the larger questions about the ballet's future today, or turn her dancers overnight into the hometown heroes she believes they ought to be. But that doesn't stop her from moving forward.

"You have to have blinders on," she says. "You just go."