If ever a man seemed born to play Don Jose' -- Carmen's passion-racked lover and murderer -- it must be Antonio Gades, the Spanish dancer who's about to do just that on the stage of the Warner Theatre.

Gades is not only acknowledged to be an electrifying performer and one of the century's finest masters of the flamenco idiom, he also looks the part. With a proudly beaked nose above lips at once ascetic and sensual, and a face that otherwise seems all ridges and hollows, his physiognomy could have been designed by Goya, and etched into flesh and bone. When he begins to move, the portrait is complete -- the intensity of his rhythm and the eloquent severity of his gesture mark him instantly as one of the surpassing male dancers of an era.

Gades was in town briefly last week to talk about the U.S. premiere of his stage version of "Carmen," which will run for seven performances at the Warner starting Tuesday night. The occasion will also mark Gades' first return to this country with a troupe of his own -- the Ballet Antonio Gades -- since 1972. Those who recall his blistering appearances that year at the National Theatre will need no urging to give "Carmen" a try.

Others may be spurred by having seen the movie treatment Gades created in collaboration with Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura, which took two prizes at Cannes and attracted a broad public in its Washington showing last year.

Gades is at pains to make clear, though, that the Warner production doesn't duplicate the film. "The stage version," he says emphatically, "is not an adaptation or transcription of the movie. In the movie, two separate but parallel stories are interwoven -- the story of the choreographer and his relationship with the dancer who has the role of Carmen, and the story of Carmen, inspired by Bizet and Me'rime'e, which the dancers are rehearsing.

"On stage, we present only the story of Carmen. But it isn't the same as Bizet's opera, either -- it is my choreographic version, stripped of embellishment and local color and all that. It's the essence of Carmen I'm trying to project, and how it is reflective of Spanish culture. The setting is very spare -- a studio space, with tables. All the scenes take their visual aspect from the rearrangement of these tables -- at the start, they are the dancers' rehearsal mirrors; later, they suggest the cigarette factory where Carmen works, and further on, a bedchamber. The costumes are rehearsal costumes, and the colors are mainly lead gray. We have retained three dance sequences from the film, but that is all."

Although music from Bizet's "Carmen," as in the movie, forms part of the accompaniment to the dancing, along with passages of flamenco singing and guitar playing and stretches of silence, Gades feels that his version is closer in spirit to the Prosper Me'rime'e novel which was the source of the opera's libretto. Bizet never set foot in Spain; Me'rime'e knew the country and its people well.

"To me," Gades says, "the Spain in the opera is more of a tourist's view of Spain; it's a more superficial atmosphere than in Me'rime'e, who had a deeper insight, I think, into the feeling of Spanish culture. In the opera, Carmen seems a frivolous, teasing person. In Me'rime'e, she's more honest, less deceitful. She may be a 'tramp' from society's standpoint, but she doesn't hide what she does. Jose' wants to enclose her, to possess her completely, like an object. But the heart of the story is that Carmen dies defending her freedom -- she chooses death over life without liberty."

One irony of Gades' different approach to the film and the stage versions is that dancer Christina Hoyos is Carmen in the stage production -- in the movie, the choreographer (Gades) passes her by for the part and gives it instead to Laura del Sol, who isn't a member of Gades' troupe and doesn't appear in the stage version. In the movie dialogue, Gades tells Hoyos, "You're the best dancer, but you're not Carmen -- we need someone younger." Afterward, del Sol and Hoyos, as two workers in the cigarette factory, quarrel violently and del Sol, as Carmen, kills the embittered Hoyos. Gades now says "precisely because it was a movie, we felt we needed somebody young and unknown, with a different style of dancing."

The fact is, as the movie confirms, Hoyos is the better dancer, as well as more suited to the austere conception of the stage version. Hoyos was the principal female of Gades' troupe when the company was here at the National 12 years ago, and she also starred in the earlier Gades-Saura film collaboration, "Blood Wedding," of 1981.

Saura is given equal credit with Gades in the Warner program for "Carmen" for the story, choreography, lighting and staging, and Gades considers the whole production a shared enterprise. "In the movie, he was the director and I was the choreographer," Gades says. "For the stage, our roles were almost reversed, in a way. But we worked together on all aspects of the staging. He didn't make the dance steps -- that, I did -- but he had a strong hand in designing the spatial composition of the dances."

Gades says he was familiar with many previous versions of the "Carmen" story, ranging from Otto Preminger's movie, "Carmen Jones," to such ballet recensions as those by Roland Petit and Alberto Alonso. But he purposely avoided seeing more recent, contemporary interpretations -- in particular, Peter Brook's staging and Jean-Luc Godard's movie "First Name: Carmen" -- before working with Saura on their joint effort. "I didn't want to be influenced by what they were doing," he explains. In one other case, however -- Francesco Rosi's film, "Bizet's Carmen," starring Placido Domingo and still showing locally -- Gades was a participant; he choreographed a scene that called for flamenco dancing.

Gades and Saura regard the "Carmen" and "Blood Wedding" films as the first two installments of an uncompleted trilogy, but the final part, to be based on composer Manuel de Falla's historic ballet, "El Amor Brujo," is already in the works. The collaborators have finished the script, and shooting is scheduled to take place next summer. One important factor will set it apart from its predecessors -- unlike them, "El Amor Brujo" ends happily. Falla's score was originally produced as a ballet in Madrid in 1915, but it gained world fame through a version by the celebrated Spanish dancer, La Argentinita, in 1928 in Paris. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Gades' principal flamenco teacher -- truly his artistic mentor -- was La Argentinita's sister, Pilar Lopez.

Gades also had training in classical ballet. In the early '60s he worked as a dancer and choreographer with the Rome Opera (he once even substituted for an ill ballerina in the role of Marie Taglioni in Dolin's "Pas de Quatre"), at Spoleto, where he partnered Carla Fracci, and at Milan's La Scala. In the late '70s, he made guest appearances with Alicia Alonso's Ballet Nacional de Cuba -- at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the troupe presented his stage version of "Blood Wedding," he danced with Alonso in a gala and also portrayed Hilarion in the company's production of "Giselle."

This dual background has whetted Gades' interest in yet another future project -- a film centering on Falla's "The Three-Cornered Hat," and its production, with choreography by Leonide Massine and decor by Pablo Picasso, by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1919.

"It was the moment in history when these classical dancers encountered genuine Spanish dance, and it was a tremendous revelation for them. I'm thinking about a movie about this that would combine Spanish and classical dancing and tell the little-known story of a Spanish gypsy who helped Massine with 'The Three-Cornered Hat' but never received much credit for it." Diaghilev took his company to Spain in 1917, seeking out new material for staging. He met Falla there, and commissioned the score of "The Three-Cornered Hat," parts of which had already been composed and produced in another form. It was Massine who met and befriended the gypsy dancer, who died in an insane asylum in 1941. "I don't want to talk too much about it," says Gades, "because I wouldn't want to see the idea ripped off by Hollywood. I wouldn't even mind, if they were to do justice to the story, but I'd have my doubts on that account."