". . . it was the first time I had ever been present when anything of mine had been played for the first time and I was not nervous but it was exciting, it went so very well.English dancers when they dance dance with freshness and agility and they know that drama is, they like to dance and they do know that drama is, it all went so very well . . ."

THE WORDS are Gertrude Stein's, and she wrote them in 1937 after witnessing the premiere of Frederick Ashton's rustic farce, "A Wedding Bouquet," by the Vic-Wells (later the Royal) Ballet. Her writing had given the ballet its plot, characters and text.

How succinctly and aptly she sums it up, the core qualities of the Royal Ballet as they have persisted to this day. Once again Washingtonians will have the pleasure of sampling such attributes when the troupe returns to this city for the first time since 1979, in a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center starting Tuesday evening.

But no brief description, not even one as insightful as Stein's, can possibly encompass all the defining traits of a dance company as large, as multifaceted and as rich in historical pedigree as the Royal Ballet. Room must be made, for example, for a hefty measure of unmistakably British wit, ranging from the lowbrow to the high-flown, as well as the company's renowned theatrical panache. Surely, however, much of the troup's character is also encapsulated in its name. The company has been "Royal" since an official charter of 1956, but from the start this has been a distinctly patrician outfit in its manners and esthetics. Elegance and refinement have always seemed as natural to the Royal's dancers as plies and arabesques.

A goodly portion of this aristocratic bearing has been assimilated by contagion from a woman who was not only the company's founder, and has served it devotedly as dancer, choreographer, teacher and director, but who remains still, at age 83, an active participant and an inspirational presence. Dame Ninette de Valois, at once spry, lofty and down-to-earth, has the crisp, authoritative demeanor of one who knows how to take charge.

She established the company in 1931 and remained its director until 1963; even now her imprint looms large -- the production of "Sleeping Beauty" that opens the Kennedy Center engagement was in fact created under her personal supervision. She feels, moreover, that whatever style and direction she may have imparted to the Royal have been carefully respected and nurtured by her successors. In New York during the start of the company's current tour, she said that "the company has always been very much a family affair. We are celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and in all this while there have been only four directors. After myself came Sir Frederick Ashton, then Kenneth MacMillan and now Norman Morrice. None of them has upset the routine, but merely developed the pattern and taken it further. Of course, tradition must move with the times, and there's always been an effort to encourage younger choreographers and dancers. We've been concerned about progressing, but it's also important to keep steadying the boat as you go."

The Royal's history is intimately bound up with de Valois' own, and there's scarcely a triumph or accomplishment in which she did not in some way figure. Her memories, though, also include a goodly share of hardships and calamities, particularly from the earlier years. An especially harrowing recollection involves the company's tour of wartime Holland, when the dancers barely escaped German bombs and bullets.

"We were cut off in The Hague," she recalls, "and got out just in time. In the process we lost eight ballets -- ours was the last convoy -- and we had to leave all our scores, sets and costumes behind."

The incident is expanded with grim details and curious sidelight in de Valois' autobiography, "Come Dance With Me." In the spring of 1940, she writes, the British Foreign Office decided "to present Holland with a little cultural propaganda in the form of the Sadler's Wells Ballet." Toward the start of the tour, amid rumors of rapid Nazi advances, the troupe stopped in Arnhem. At a reception, a Dutch Baroness presented to de Valois her 8-year-old daughter, who dreamed of becoming a dancer. "I remember my reaction," writes de Valois, "that here a star was born -- no matter in what guise." She remembered too an "elfin grace" and "a pair of sensitive dancing eyes." The little girl was Audrey Hepburn.

In a matter of days thereafter the Luftwaffe began its devastation of Rotterdam, and the dancers, in nearby The Hague, had to beat an exit with dive bombers at their heels. At length they were herded into the hold jof a cargo ship crammed with fleeing Hollanders, distined for a 15-hour voyage across the North Sea to safety. Frederick Ashton passed handfuls of straw to de Valois to make a pillow for her -- "I felt like a horse about to be fed," she writes.

De Valois was born in 1898 as Edris Stannus (the de Valois name, also in the family, was later adopted for the stage) in Baltiboys, County Wicklow, Ireland, but the family moved to England soon after. "I began [dancing] the way all English girls did -- I was sent to dancing school, wearing a little Red Riding Hood jacket and mittens. I was lucky the school was rather better than most." What was taught at Mrs. Wordsworth's School was called Fancy Dancing -- "a quaint compromise of rudimentary steps such as the chasse and glissade combined with other steps fancy beyond belief," de Valois recalled in her memoirs. Later she was to come under the tutelage of the celebrated Enrico Cecchetti, and while still a teen-ager, she performed in London revues and musicals, including something called a "Jazzaganza" that had music by Milhaud and choreography by Massine.

In the '20s she joined the Diaghilev troupe in Paris for several years, returning to London fired with the idea of establishing a permanent haven for English dancers along strictly classical lines. In 1926, she founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, the school that was to be the fountainhead of the Royal Ballet. In the newly opened Sadler's Wells Theater in 1931, she presented the Vic-Wells Ballet -- later the Sadler's Wells and finally the Royal -- for the first time. The troupe's nucleus in the early years included Ashton, Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Robert Helpmann and an adolescent Margot Fonteyn. Through Lydia Lopokova, the Russian dancer who was to marry the economist Lord Keynes, de Valois learned of a ballet master who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution carrying notated dance scores of the major Russian classics as performed in St. Petersburg and had made his way to France. This was Nicholas Sergeyev, whose treasured notations (now in the Harvard Library) became the source for the "standard" productions of "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" by the Royal and many other Western troupes. "He was just a little old Russian, a starving refugee in Paris, when we found him, and he had all these ballets stuffed into tin trunks," de Valois remembered.

The Sergeyev productions culminated in the landmark "Sleeping Beauty" of $939. After the war, the company gained a new home in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where "Sleeping Beauty," with the Oliver Messel decor lately acquired by American Ballet Theatre, was staged as the opening production in 1946. With the ground prepared by the 1948 film "The Red Shoes," the company made its first visit to the United States the following year, again opening with "Sleeping Beauty." Sol Hurok, the impresario who arranged the tour, was dubious about the reaction of an American public to full-length ballets; he went so far as to suggest to de Valois that "Beauty" be cut down. She told him no dice, and he went along. The production was a legendary success -- the beginning of an American love affair with the Royal Ballet and the springboard for the troupe's ascent to international preeminence.

The Kennedy Center programs will include "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake"; Kenneth MacMillanhs new evening-long dramatic opus, "Isadora," based on the life of Isadora Duncan; and a mixed repertory bill consisting of MacMillan's recent "Gloria" and two Ashton ballets, "Daphnis and Chloe" and "A Month in the Country." Anthony Dowell, Lesley Collier, Wayne Eagling, Monica Mason, Merle Park, Jennifer Penney and Marguerite Porter will be among the principals (David Wall has been injured and will be unable to appear).

The Royal charter followed half a decade after the first U.S. tour, and in 1962 -- the year before de Valois turned over the Royal directorship to Ashton -- a brilliant young Soviet virtuoso by the name of Rudolf Nureyev joined the company as guest artist, ushering in yet another golden epoch in the annals of British ballet. Today, the Royal Ballet embraces two full companies numbering some 120 dancers in total, plus two schools and a close affiliation with a "junior" troupe known as the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet's programs, you'll find the names of all four people who've held the reins since the company's debut: Norman Morrice, as director; Kenneth MacMillan, as principal choreographer; Frederick Ashton, as founder choreographer; and Ninette de Valois, founder.