"The Italians are coming!?" declared a dance fan in puzzled tones that are probably being echoed by many Washingtonians. For opera, the announcement wouldn't have caused that sort of surprise, but in ballet we are much more used to being besieged by the Russians, British and Danes, not to mention New York dancers.

It is precisely this reaction that the First Italian Ballet Festival is supposed to cure with 10 of that country's top dancers gathered for a gala program of soli and pas de deux. However, a week before the performance, only eight tickets had been sold for the twice-only event, scheduled for Thursday and Friday nights at Constitution Hall. Washington was chosen as the site over New York. And, according to festival organizer Bruno Fusco, there were no previews in Italy because of intense managerial rivalries that prevented these stars of different companies from receiving permission to perform together on home ground.

At a press conference here Saturday, six of the performers who are already in town for rehearsals gave a vivid forecast of their upcoming venture. aThere was Liliana Cosi, who has been one of La Scala's ballerinas and a favorite guest at the Bolshoi, explaining with the help of her expressive fingers and deep eyes that "The Dying Swan" is the role she feels most intensely. Cosi, the boyant Gabriella Cohen whose career has blossomed more in Belgium than at home, and the Rome Opera's debonair Alfredo Raino debated whether there was such a thing today as a typically Italian style of ballet.

The dancers agreed that there had been an Italian "school" once upon a time. Italy, of course, is where ballet is said to have been born long ago. As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, dancers from Italy were in demand at the theaters of Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna and New York. Promising talent from those cities was sent to the schools of Milan's La Scala and Naples' San Carlo theaters for "finishing." Even in the years of Ballet Russe preeminence, between 1907 and World War II, Italian maestros like Enrico Cecchetti and Vincenzo Celli were often the principal teachers in Russian companies. Celli still has a school in New York, and his pupils are said to have the secure body placement and strong backs that give the Italian style its special look.

"None of us here are alike!" Cosi and Cohen declared emphatically and almost with one voice. Rome Opera ballerina Lucia Colognato and a sleek duo from the San Carlo, Rita Romanelli and Antonio Vitale, bristled at the very suggestion. Raino, however, felt that even today Italian dancers had something in common. Although their technique has been influenced by the Russians and British, they don't look like the ballerinas and ballerinos of either of those nations. Whether tall or short, intense or casual, these six beautiful people are all fine-boned, dark-haired, with an olive tint of skin.

Choreography for the Italian program includes not only classical Russian items by Petipa and Fokine, but the Civilization pas de deux from "Excelsior," Italy's most famous ballet, which will be 100 years old this winter. Colognato and Raino will dance it in a reconstruction of the original Manzotti steps. Modern works by Carolyn Carlson, Susanna Egri, Igor Perry and other choreographers will be an important component. One piece to Mahler music will be by Fusco. He's no stranger to this area, having performed here with the National and Washington ballet companies. Fusco reminded his audience that Paolo Bortoluzzi, an Italian dancer who is famous here, will be on the roster, as will Margo Nativo from Florence and Bologna's Maria Grazia Garofoli and Enzo Cesiro.