When American Ballet Theatre settles into the Kennedy Center Opera House for a two-week visit starting Tuesday night, it will treat Washington to the unveiling of its lavish new production of "Coppelia" -- the 19th-century romantic comedy that has been out of the repertory for nearly a decade -- and also its principal contemporary acquisition for the '90-91 season, Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta."

These are some of the hallmarks of the first season that has been entirely planned and organized by directors Jane Hermann and Oliver Smith, who succeeded to company leadership after the abrupt departure of former artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov in September of 1989. Washington is getting the first glimpse of major new repertory partly because the season will be launched here -- the initial stop on the new national tour that will also touch down in Chicago, Orange County, Calif., and San Francisco before the troupe's annual run at New York's Metropolitan Opera House in April.

It's a season that will reflect clearly for the first time the personal approach and emphasis of Hermann (and Smith as well, though his involvement with the company is not full-time). When she took the reins in '89, the company was about to begin a 50th-anniversary season that had been designed in virtually every particular by Baryshnikov. Hermann also had to cope from the start with a fiscal crisis of mammoth proportion.

Having since successfully yanked the company back from the brink of economic disaster, and having also weathered a potentially calamitous contract dispute with the dancers last month, Hermann is thus now just beginning to be able to put her own stamp on the character of ABT. This is mirrored not just in her choice of repertory and an aggressive showcasing of the company's dancers, but also in action and thought relating to budgeting, programming, touring and building toward the future.

In a phone conversation from her New York office last week, Hermann discussed these matters, starting with the "Coppelia" revival.

"I picked 'Coppelia' because the company hadn't done it in years, and I thought we had the right dancers for it. I think the casts we have are phenomenal, and you'll be seeing all five of them in Washington. I asked Enrique Martinez to restage the ballet for us because I really prefer his version, the one he created for ABT in 1968. I looked at a lot of others: the Paris Opera Ballet, which is fine, but they omit the last act and I didn't want just two-thirds of the ballet; the Danish version, which is a delight, but only Swanilda is on point, and I didn't want a 'character' ballet. And I spoke with 'Coppelia' dancers all over the world who thought Enrique's version was the best one going. It's terribly hard technically, but the effect is completely light and charming.

"And I can't tell you how thrilled I am at the designs by Tony Straiges -- who we engaged at Oliver {Smith's} suggestion -- and the costumes by Patricia Zipprodt. It's one of the most beautiful productions I've ever seen. I suppose I shouldn't be boasting about it, but you can believe if I was disappointed I wouldn't bring up the subject at all."

Havana-born Martinez is an old ABT hand, who spent some 14 years with the company in the past, as a dancer, ballet master and assistant director. His '68 staging -- based on Arthur Saint-Leon's choreography for the original Paris production of 1870 -- had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn as Swanilda and Franz, and was a popular company staple for many seasons. Among memorable ABT casts, Gelsey Kirkland and Baryshnikov -- in their early years with the troupe -- made an indelible impression.

The new "Coppelia" is a first ABT assignment for designer Straiges, whose decor for Broadway's "Sunday in the Park With George" won him a Tony Award, and whose credits also include productions for the Joffrey Ballet, Arena Stage, the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Sundance Institute. Costumer Zipprodt has three Tonys of her own (for "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret" and "Sweet Charity"). Her previous ABT credits include Tudor's "The Leaves Are Fading" and Robbins's "Les Noces," and she's been chosen to design costumes for the New York City Ballet's coming production of "The Sleeping Beauty." The Straiges-Zipprodt team will be complemented in the "Coppelia" production by master lighting designer Thomas Skelton.

"Coppelia" -- inspired by an E.T.A. Hoffmann tale about how a spunky peasant lass and her swain outwit the cranky, eccentric dollmaker Dr. Coppelius -- may be the first "modern" ballet, in spirit at least. Despite many typical 19th-century features, including such "exotica" as a mazurka, czardas and bolero, as well as the allegorical divertissements of the finale, the humorous cool of both Leo Delibes's score and the heroine's personality transport the ballet to an ironic realm beyond the romantic canon. Swanilda is conspicuously smarter than both her gullible Franz and the scheming Coppelius, and more "liberated" than her sister protagonists of the era. The ballet's thematic issues -- woman vs. man, youth vs. age, living being vs. robot, even Coppelius's Frankenstein complex (he dreams of bringing the doll Coppelia to life, and Swanilda dupes him into believing he's done it) -- may have a certain universality, but they have specific resonance for our own times as well.

"Coppelia" makes its bow here Friday night (after three performances of an opening bill of ballets by Balanchine, Tharp and Massine), with a cast headed by former Washingtonian Cheryl Yeager and Julio Bocca. The Sunday evening performance will be a gala, for which the lead roles will be taken by Cynthia Gregory and guest artist Fernando Bujones. Other principal couples will include Cynthia Harvey and Wes Chapman; Amanda McKerrow and Danilo Radojevic; and Mariana Tcherkassky and Johan Renvall.

Beside Bujones, another guest artist at the Kennedy Center -- like Bujones a distinguished ABT veteran -- will be Milan's Fracci, who'll be making her debut performance as Lizzie Borden in Agnes de Mille's "Fall River Legend" during the company's second week of programs. De Mille herself will be overseeing final rehearsals of the revival.

"I felt it was very important to reestablish ties with such artists as Fernando and Carla," Hermann said. "They have so many great things to offer to the company's younger dancers."

Whatever Hermann may have achieved for the current season was wrested from within an economic pinch of the most stringent sort. The company's accumulated deficit alone, originally estimated at $1 million, has turned out to be closer to $4 million, while touring and production costs have continued to escalate. "Our first concern was to avoid bankruptcy," she said, "and that meant that programming had to be worked out within extremely severe constraints. We didn't have money for new works and added rehearsals we'd have liked, so we did the best we could under the circumstances. I'm very pleased with the programs we've managed to come up with. But the recession is impacting very badly on everybody in ballet -- we've had cuts in state and federal support, a falling off in ticket sales, and it's become harder and harder to get corporate, foundation and private donations."

The crunch has led to adjustments in the company's overall budget -- a reduction to about $17 million this season, down from last year's $18 million, which represented a decrease of about $4 million from Baryshnikov's '89-90 projection. Hermann has also pared the roster of dancers back to 82, from a high of close to 100 in her predecessor's era. This year's tour reduces the number of cities visited from the previous 10 to four. And future repertory plans, Hermann said, will have to take the fiscal realities wholly into account. "Given the economic climate we're in, we're definitely going to have to run a very, very tight ship."

A new Hermann initiative has been to inform both the public and the dancers earlier about her casting decisions. "I think the public has a right to know what they're spending their money on, and that the dancers have a right to know when they're being assigned. This makes life a lot more difficult for me -- dancers become disgruntled, I'm vulnerable to their complaints. But if anyone doesn't feel he or she is getting what they're entitled to, they know also they can ask for it, and they'll hear my reasons. It's painful stuff, I hate it like hell, but it comes with the territory."

As for upcoming and future projects, some have been necessitated by Baryshnikov's withdrawal of his own stagings from the company repertory. Thus, later this season, the troupe will introduce a new version of "Don Quixote" mounted by the Bolshoi's Vladimir Vasiliev, and next season's big new production is expected to be a "Nutcracker." (Hermann said she hopes to have it play the Kennedy Center next December, but expressed apprehension about the center's apparent reluctance to do both "Nutcracker" and repertory programs. "To cut us down to a single week is not worthy of this company. This bothers me a great deal.")

In coming seasons, Hermann said, she'd like to introduce a new full-length ballet each year, with an emphasis on restagings of major classical works, including "Cinderella" and "Swan Lake" (the coming Kennedy Center programs include a restoration of David Blair's Act II). She also spoke of conserving the great American heritage of ABT's past -- the Tudor, de Mille and Robbins ballets, and exploring additions to the Balanchine list.

As for new choreography, the financial restrictions will continue to pose a challenge, she said. "Sinfonietta," Kylian's first staging for ABT, dates from 1978, but he wanted to get to know the company better before attempting something new. Hermann said she's asked both Kylian and Twyla Tharp for proposals, but that much would depend on their time and projected budgets. A new ballet by gifted company member Clark Tippet, originally scheduled for the current season, has been put on hold because of his health problems.

Hermann is also looking beyond the commissioning of individual ballets to a more enduring relationship with a choreographer. "Our main quest is going to be to find a choreographer who we feel we can commit to and who can commit to us over a long period of time, to give us a new choreographic voice. Not just to make a ballet, but to have a whole body of work emerge. Maybe it will turn out to be somebody unknown, who knows? It's going to take a lot of searching and thinking, and with so little money to be able to devote to it, it becomes a ticklish business indeed."

In the meantime, as Hermann makes clear by persistent reiteration, her main pride and joy in the company is its dancers.

"ABT has always been a dancers' company, and I believe the quality of the dancing right now is nothing short of fantastic," she said. "I think you're going to see a total breakthrough with a dancer, say, like Wes Chapman, who's dancing now as well as anybody in the world as far as I'm concerned. I think you're going to see the rise of Jeremy Collins this season. The general level of the company's dancing is remarkable.

"Well, here I go boasting again -- but I just think these are superb artists."