NOW THAT the smoke has cleared and the contractual dispute between American Ballet Theatre management and its dancers has been resolved, one can't help asking -- did it have to happen this way?

Talks between the parties began as far back as mid-April of this year on renewal of a contract that was to expire Aug. 31. The battle is over, compromises have been found, and the company is ready to resume its artistic activities. Its first appearances will take place Jan. 19 through Jan. 23 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, as the initial stop on a cross-country tour. But consider the cost -- the dancers have been locked out of the studios and unemployed (except for isolated guest engagements) from Sept. 2 until the settlement last Monday; company engagements in Paris, Boston and Washington (the traditional four-week run at the Kennedy Center in December) have been canceled; planned new productions have been set back; prospective revenues have been curtailed; subscribers and fans have been frustrated; and within ABT itself, personal acrimony and resentments have festered as an inevitable consequence of charges and countercharges, demands and reproaches.

All this is not too different, one might observe, from the woes that attend any heated and protracted labor dispute. Ballet, however, isn't just another industry or profession -- it's an art form, a peculiarly vibrant and extremely fragile one, dependent to a unique degree on the well-being of its executants, the dancers. The loss of class and rehearsal time, the loss of stage performance, and the interruption of company continuity -- these are irrecoverable. And the damage in morale may conceivably have long-term after-effects.

Both parties now seem anxious to smooth over the abrasions of recent months. In a statement issued by ABT, artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov was quoted as saying, "It is to be expected that there will be scars after such a long hiatus, but I hope that work will help to eliminate those scars and reunite us all as never before. After all, this is the work for which we were born."

The mere acknowledgment of scar tissue is a healthy first step toward its healing, and Baryshnikov's impetus toward reconciliation is echoed by others who were more directly involved in the fray. Frank Smith, spokesman for the ABT dancers in the negotiations, said this past week in New York: "The damage that has been done is evident, but it's not irreparable. We will work to the full to reestablish rapport with the management. The dancers aren't vindictive; yes, there are hard feelings, but we think they can be overcome with time and hard work, that is, through our dancing."

In the meantime, the agreement that's been reached represents formidable gains for the dancers -- a majority of their demands have been partly or wholly met within the new 50-month contract. Base wages, a major issue, will rise an average of 40 percent over the contract period. Under the old contract, corps dancers earned an average of $392.50 a week, soloists earned up to $540, and principals got a minimum of $650, for a guaranteed 40 weeks. Under the new terms, new corps dancers will receive $400 in the first year and $425 in the fourth year; experienced corps (six years and more) salaries will rise from $547 to $630; soloists, from $625 in the first year to $750 in the last; and principals, from $750 to $865. Moreover, the number of guaranteed weeks will increase in the fourth year to 43. Other new benefits include a one-week paid vacation in the fourth year; single-room accommodations on tour, during the third year; improved per diem allowances on tour; and an escalating severance pay program for up to 10 weeks of severance.

The question remains: could this sort of concord have been attained sooner, without the attendant toll for both parties? Is it simply human nature that such differences must be ironed out in a context of inflamed tempers, ultimatums and a hardball atmosphere, or was the confrontation but a reflection of the new status of major ballet in this country as Big Business?

One has to try to see the issues from both sides to understand how intransigence settles in and impedes progress, so that a settlement that takes five minutes to read ends up consuming more than six months of negotiation. The dangers' case is perhaps the more obvious -- they are clearly the "underdogs," underpaid and ill-provided for in a career which leaves most of them economically stranded in their mid-thirties, when their physical prime has irretrievably passed, and their immersion in their art has precluded preparation for any other sort of gainful employment. And we're talking here not about some minor, provincial enterprise, but ABT, one of the half-dozen world-class ballet companies, whose dancers -- from youngest corps members to principals -- exemplify the highest level of talent and expertise. Read through the new book, "Winter Season," written with extraordinary sensitivity and skill by New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley, for a portrait of the soulwracking anguish it takes to sustain a career in ballet under contemporary circumstances.

Yes, in the old days ballet dancers gritted their teeth, starved in garrets and sacrificed everything for the mere opportunity to perform. Even if they were so inclined, however, such a course is no longer possible for them in the world of 1982. The rent for garrets -- if you can find one -- is out of sight; starved dancers couldn't compete against today's thousands of fit bodies; and in the present atmosphere of instant self-realization and insistence on individual rights, it's too much to ask of anyone to give up everything else in life for bare subsistence and a precarious future, even for the ecstasy of dance.

In relation to performing artists in other media, dancers started on the lowest rung of the ladder, and even now, after the remarkable advances of the new ABT contract, they're still appreciably behind, in terms of recompense, working conditions and security. "Parity" with the New York City Ballet was a hot topic during the negotiations; that parity has been roughly achieved, but only in wages, not in any of the so-called "fringe" benefits. And meanwhile, the musicians of the ballet orchestra and the stagehands who move scenery remain considerably better off economically. As Frank Smith put it, "We're closing the gap, but it's still a long ways off; it'll probably take us several more contracts to reach that point." It was, moreover, a sizable concession for the dancers to have committed themselves to a four-year contract, thereby deferring any further improvements, in a period of unstable economy, for nearly half a decade.

It's easy to cast the management as the "heavies," the oppressors. The truth is, they have problems -- different problems, and not on the same personal level, but problems all the same -- of the same magnitude and intractability as those of the dancers themselves. Part of the difficulty is that dancers have been forced by the very growth of their art to hand over administration of their lives to others -- even smaller outfits nowadays must have their managers, accountants, development officers, fund-raisers, publicists and so forth. The directive power rests not with the artists -- the dancers and choreographers -- but with a board of directors and the staff it hires. In ABT, aside from a few dancer exceptions like Baryshnikov, Lucia Chase and Nora Kaye, the board consists of pillar-of-the-community types, people of means and clout and influence, who have a love of dance and presumably want to see it flourish.

But it's their job to keep the ship afloat in a very rocky sea. Big ballet means Big Bucks -- the ABT budget over the next four years has been estimated at $75 million. This money has to come from box-office receipts and patrons (individuals, corporations, foundations, government), and to attract it the "product" has to be sufficiently marketable in today's highly competitive ballet universe.This means lavish, popular ballets to appeal to mass audiences; immense repertoire, to avert audience apathy; huge, flamboyant productions to fill the massive halls that have become the rule in our large cities; expensive tours, to build constituencies throughout the county; stars and names in every field, from dancers to designers to costumers to composers. Ticket prices are already forbiddingly high, so the only tactic management has at its disposal for economizing is the simple business rule: keep costs down as much as possible, especially in an era of retrenchment with respect to federal subsidies and foundation support.

In the end, management sees no other course but to resist dancers' demands to add to the budget with wage increases and the like. Perhaps somewhere in the back of the head is the thought: "They ought to love it so much they'll do it for peanuts anyway." We know, for example, from the account of Toni Bentley and others that the great George Balanchine has always thrown this in the faces of his dancers -- he starved for his art, and they should be prepared to do the same. That's the unique New York City Ballet, a totalitarian regime if ever there was one.The ABT situation is somewhat different -- the company is harder pressed, because, unlike NYCB, it has no home theater of its own; and the artistic director, Baryshnikov, has ties on both sides of the fence. He's both worker and management, performer and administrator, and being torn between the two must have been sheer torture for him during the recent fracas. No matter which way you slice it, managing a ballet company is no picnic. The price of free enterprise -- versus the state-supported arts organizations of Europe and the Soviet Union, for example, with their consequent rigidities -- is staggering risk.

Perhaps the recent lengthy conflict was unavoidable. But perhaps also there is an avenue that offers some hope of alleviating future confrontations -- one that would make provision for greater participation by dancers in the decision-making processes of a company like ABT, possibly as members of the board of directors, for instance.If dancers were faced personally with the challenge of beating the bushes for funds, they might be more understanding of management's reluctance to make promises that could lead to disastrous deficits. If boards of directors had more daily and intimate contact with the very human imperatives of dancers' lives, they might be more understanding of the performers' demands.

A panacea it's not, but it's hard to see many other options. In England and elsewhere, there are symphony orchestras which have assumed responsibility for their own management -- the players choose the board, hire the conductors, write the contracts. Maybe somewhere down the line, a similar strategy will prove viable for American ballet companies. In the meanwhile, we haven't even touched on the realm of modern dance, where artists do still actually starve in lofts, wash floors to make a living, and sacrifice just about all else to pursue their dreams.

In the light of all this, one is forced to count blessings. ABT is back in operation. Both the company and the Kennedy Center seem confident about plans to have ABT back at the center for four and possibly five weeks in December of 1983. And for now, we'll have seven performances by the troupe starting Jan. 19, in programs that will include two company premieres (the revival of Balanchine's "Sinfonie Concertante" and a new pas de deux by John McFall for Baryshnikov and a partner to be announced) and three Washington premieres (Merce Cunningham's "Duets," Lynn Taylor-Corbett's "Great Galloping Cottschalk," and Jerome Robbins' "New York Export: Op. Jazz"). "Sinfonie Concertante" will have its first performance on opening night; the McFall ballet will be introduced the following evening.