You are 22 years old, and you've joined American Ballet Theatre -- as a principal dancer -- only a few months ago. It's now January of this year, in Miami Beach, and you are about to dance the lead role in that legendary test of a ballerina's mettle, "Giselle."

You've never danced the part before on stage, much less opposite the world's most celebrated ballet superstar, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

How do you feel?

"Terrified," says Alessandra Ferri, recalling the experience over the phone from San Diego last week, where ABT was continuing its tour.

"I was terrified then. It was my first 'Giselle,' and my first time dancing with Baryshnikov in public. I am still terrified, every time dancing with him. It's so demanding, such a great responsibility, to be dancing next to Misha. His level is so high, and I want never to let him down.

"Dancing with him pushes me to the extreme each time. Even in rehearsal. I feel pushed to be my best. I trust his judgment and his criticism completely, so it makes me want to give my maximum. And he's a great partner in so many ways, not only physically strong, but also such a strong personality and very committed. He's completely committed to whatever he does. And that's the way I try to approach a role."

Ferri will open the three-week ABT season at the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday night, dancing Giselle again opposite Baryshnikov's Albrecht.

Ferri's voice on the telephone sounds slightly husky, alluring, assertive. Born in Milan, she's on the tiny side physically -- 5-feet-2 and 97 pounds -- but she commands a large stage easily, radiating a presence that has attracted attention since the start of her career, with England's Royal Ballet. Her dark hair, expressive brows and large eyes frame a face of classic beauty.

Admitting a partiality for dramatic ballets, she has determined ideas about the roles she dances. Giselle, for instance:

"I think of Giselle as not particularly shy, as she is often portrayed, but rather sure of herself," she says.

"Giselle" tells of a peasant girl seduced by the aristocratic Albrecht, who has disguised himself as a farmer to woo her. When Hilarion, Giselle's rustic boyfriend, discovers Albrecht's true station and reveals this to her, she goes mad and dies (in Act II, as a forgiving spirit, she then saves Albrecht from the deadly vengeance of her sister Wilis).

"After all," says Ferri, "when we meet Giselle in the first act she's been with Albrecht many times before. She's very happily in love with him, almost obsessed with him. She never dreams anything could go wrong. And she's incredibly honest. I think it's her honesty that kills her in the end. She's not embarrassed to hide her love for Albrecht from Hilarion, because she's too honest for that."

Though she's never visited most of the cities on the current ABT tour, Ferri has been in Washington on three previous occasions. She was with the Royal Ballet when the company made its last visit to the Kennedy Center in 1981, although as a relative newcomer to the troupe she didn't appear in a performance. In 1984, however, she danced major roles -- including a pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon" -- when members of the Royal under the leadership of Wayne Eagling appeared at Wolf Trap as the English Ballet Ensemble.

Last summer she unexpectedly made her debut with ABT here in a performance of the "Shades" scene from "La Bayade re," again at Wolf Trap. Her appearance was unexpected because she'd been scheduled to make her ABT bow dancing Juliet to Baryshnikov's Romeo at the Met in New York. Baryshnikov's knee surgery in August, however, caused the cancellation of all his slated performances both at Wolf Trap and the Met.

It was between the two Wolf Trap engagements that Baryshnikov asked Ferri, now a Royal principal and one of the troupe's main attractions, to join ABT. By then he'd appointed MacMillan -- a fervent champion of Ferri at the Royal -- to become ABT's "artistic associate." In December 1984, he came to see Ferri in Italy, where she was starring in Franco Zeffirelli's unconventional production of "Swan Lake."

"He asked," she recalls, "if I was interested in joining the company. As a young artist, I've always believed it is good to experience as many different things as you can, working with different teachers, different coaches, different dancers. Besides, he also asked me if I wanted to dance with him. I don't think I could have refused that request."

Ferri finds dancing with ABT quite a contrast to her experience with the Royal. "They are really very different companies altogether. It was much easier, with the Royal in London, being in the same city all year around, it was a much steadier routine. We never had the very long, long sort of rehearsals we sometimes do at ABT, and we'd perform only twice or three times a week. As a principal dancer, I'd just be on the stage once a month. The ballet company, you see, shares Covent Garden with the opera company, and principals share major roles with other principals, so there's just not so much opportunity to dance.

"With ABT there is all this touring, and so many more performances. For me it is very exciting. I'm enjoying working so hard. And it is very stimulating because the company is in such great shape. There are so many good dancers in ABT -- it's exciting to work with such people all the time."

Whatever impelled Ferri into a dance career appears to have been self-generated. Her father, now retired, was a businessman; her mother, a grade school teacher. "Nobody in my family," she says, "was involved with the arts, not my parents, not my older brother. Dancing was just something I liked . . . The elementary school I went to had a ballet class once a week, and I asked if I could join it. I liked it more and more. We used to do one performance each year, and I remember always taking it much more seriously than the other little girls. When I was 10, I entered the ballet school at La Scala, and it was then I started thinking of it as something I wanted to do with my life."

After five years, she began to feel the need for a change. "I wanted to leave Milan. At the time, there were no really good teachers in the school, and the Scala ballet company was having its little problems -- I couldn't see a future for myself there. One of the teachers advised me to try the Royal Ballet school in England, so I did."

At the time, by her own account, she spoke "not a word" of English. "I've always been brave," she explains. In 1980, the year she won a top prize at the Prix de Lausanne competition, she was invited to join the Royal, at age 17. Within four years she was promoted to principal dancer. Numbers of roles were created for her, principally by MacMillan, who also cast her in the title role of his "Manon," as Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet" and as Anna in "Mayerling."

Ferri made her New York debut with ABT last fall as Juliet, with Kevin McKenzie dancing Romeo. The two will be seen in these roles on April 11 at the Kennedy Center. Ferri's interpretation was largely molded, she says, by Zeffirelli's 1966 film version of the Shakespeare play, with teen-ager Olivia Hussey as the heroine. "Zeffirelli painted Juliet the way I always had imagined her to be: very headstrong, very passionate, very -- how do you say it? -- impulsive. I think I am very Latin in temperament, so it was easy to identify myself with her. Juliet comes much more naturally to me than Giselle, for instance."

During the Kennedy Center engagement, Ferri will also be seen dancing with Gil Boggs in MacMillan's new "Requiem," to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, during the company's gala performance on the evening of April 8. For the future, she's rehearsing ABT roles she hopes to assume in "Les Sylphides," Balanchine's "La Sonnambula," and Tudor's "Jardin aux Lilas."

The Tudor, a masterpiece of psychological introspection, she sees as a special challenge. "It's frightening for me because it's such a different way of emoting in dance, so intimate. I'm used to 'acting out' everything, you see, not repressing."

Now that she's been living in this country awhile, are there things she misses about Italy?

"I miss eveything about Italy!" she exclaims. "I love Italy . . . the people, the life style, the beauty. Especially the art. America sometimes looks a little ugly to me in comparison. I miss the art that is so available in Europe, every little corner has it. I do like New York, though -- I think New York has a beauty of its own. And Washington is very beautiful, almost European . . . But some other places here -- L.A., it's so incredibly ugly I don't know how anyone can get to sleep there!"

ABT will be covering an exceptionally broad gamut of ballets in its forthcoming Opera House programs. There'll be two world premieres -- one by Post-Modernist Karole Armitage and another by Paul Taylor dancer David Parsons. There'll also be two Washington premieres, of MacMillan's "Requiem" and the "Francesca da Rimini" by ABT's associate director, John Taras. A "Salute to Antony Tudor," including his "Dim Lustre," "Jardin aux Lilas," and "Dark Elegies," will be presented April 17. Two all-Tchaikovsky programs, on April 9 and 16, also are scheduled.

The company will be offering no less than four full-length ballets, with multiple casts, including, beside "Giselle" and MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet," Baryshnikov's "Don Quixote" and "The Nutcracker." And in addition to the ballets cited, "Swan Lake, Act II," Twyla Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove" and Balanchine's "Bourre'e Fantasque" and "Theme and Variations" will also be performed.