The ballet drought that has afflicted Washington since last spring comes to a sudden, welcome end Tuesday evening with the start of a month-long appearance at the Kennedy Center Opera House by American Ballet Theater. The season looks to be one of both promise and peril, but the mere return of the company at this point is enough to kindle a sense of rejuvenation in local ballet circles.

The coming Kennedy Center series finds ABT at a particularly curious and interesting juncture in its history. In some ways, the company fortunes have never run so high. The recently released movie, "The Turning Point," studded with ABT dancers as well as Hollywood stars, is affording the troupe a new level of national exposure.

In January, a mmammoth new illustrated history of the company - "American Ballet Theater," by Charles Payne - will be published by Alfred Knopf. The joint Kennedy Center-Metropolitan Opera House axis that has become the company base of operations is both a spur to and a sign of ABT's increased popularity.

At the same time, there is something of an air of depletion about the company's current state. Though the Kennedy Center will offer a world premiere - Glen Tetley's new "Sphinx" - a new pas de deux and a pair of revivals, the repertoire is relatively spare and devoid of major novelties.

The biggest disappointment is "the one that got away." It had been annoucned that Paul Taylor, the great modern dance choreographer who is at the height of his creative powers, would be mounting his first work ever for a classical ballet company for ABT, and that it would be premiered this season in Washington. Unfortunately, the enterprise proceeded more slowly than anticipated, and at the last moment Taylor decided to postpone the unveiling to gain additional rehearsal time. It is unclear at this time whether the work, when finished, will have its premiere in this city or elsewhere.

More conspicuous still is the shrinkage in ABT personnel.Ballerina Cynthia Gregory has left the company in a dispute over the adequacy of her dancing partners. Charles Ward, promoted to principal dancer just last year and at an apparent threshold of prominence within company ranks, has taken a leave of absence, reportedly to explore a musical comedy career. Natalia Makarova, so long a company mainstay, though on a "special guest artist" basis, is temporarily hors de combat because of pregnancy, and neither Ted Kivitt nor Karena Brock will be appearing in Washington this time around.

Precisely by virtue of this thinning out, however, casting for the Kennedy Center series has taken on an unaccustomed sense of concentration, and there'll be much more reliance than in previous seasons on company regulars at all levels, instead of imported guests.

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the company's incomparable Russian virtuoso, will have a fairly hefty dancing schedule - in the first week, he'll be seen on opening night in "La Bayadere," and in "Push Comes to Shove," on Thursday evening in the first "Giselle" of the series, and on Sunday evening, in Jerome Robbins' "Other Dances." He'll have other, as yet unannounced, assignments the second week, and of course, during the final two weeks devoted to his own staging of "The Nutcracker," he'll be much in evidence.

Gelsey Kirkland, now fully recovered from protracted illness and injuries, will be doing a lot more dancing in Washington than she's been able to in some time. "She'll be partnered by Baryshnikov in "La Bayadere" and by Ivan Nagy in Kenneth MacMillan's pax de deux, "Pavane" (an ABT premiere) on opening night; she'll join Nagy again Wednesday for "The Leaves are Fading," and Baryshnikov Thursday in "Giselle," and on Sunday evening, she'll appear for the first time ever in "Other Dances," once more with Baryshnikov.

Kirkland will also be making her first Washington appearances as Clarain "The Nutcracker," during the ballet's run, Dec. 20 to Jan. 1.

Another ballerina who will be afforded exceptional currency by the situation will be the majestic Martine van Hamel, who has the title role in Tetley's "Sphinx," in which she'll be partnered by Clark Tippet and Kirk Peterson. The new abstract work, based in dramatic substance on Jean Cocteau's play "La Machine Infernale," uses a score by Bohuslav Martinu (Double Concerto for Strings, Piano and Timpani), and will have scenery by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and costumes by Willa Kim.

Van Hamel will also by making her first Washington appearance as Desdemona in Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavane," in a performance-that will also feature Erik Bruhn's first local appearance as the Moor. Other ballets in which van Hamel will dance are Tetley's "Voluntaries" and "Push Comes to Shove."

MacMillan's "Danses Concertantes" and Linchine's "Graduation Ball" will be the two revivals. Other company principals who will figure prominently in the initial two weeks of repertory include John Meehan, former lead dancer of the Australian Ballet, now with ABT; Fernando Bujones, Marianna Tcherkassky and Eleanor D-Antuono.

In addition, such younger ABT dancers as Leslie Browne, Jolinda Menendez, Rebecca Wright, Aurea Hammerli, George de la Pena, Warren Conover, Charles Maple and Richard Schafer will be undertaking a variety of major assignments for the first time during the coming series.

It will be fascinating to see how this new "up from the ranks" philosophy takes hold in practice; at the very least, it is apt to provide a solid buttress for company morale.