One of the more inspiring and starstudded of holiday traditions is American Ballet Theater's annual season at the Kennedy Center, which opened this week and runs through January 6. Since 1971, when ABT was named the official company of the center, this grand ensemble of 88 dancers has offered audiences its trademark combination of 19th-century story ballets; masterworks by Balanchine, Tudor and Ashton; and contemporary ballets by the likes of Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.

The most celebrated, and arguably the greatest, performer on ABT's roster, Mikhail Baryshnikov has led this 45-year-old institution for the past four years. While maintaining the standards established by his predecessors, Baryshnikov has placed his own stamp on the company. He has refurbished and re-staged a number of classic works, commissioned new ballets and collaborated on a charming full-length version of "Cinderella," a staple in the company's current repertoire and next week's featured performance. His particular concern for the younger dancers in the troupe has resulted in a tighter-looking corps de ballet, and has afforded a number of these dancers the chance to debut in plum roles.

And just this fall, Baryshnikov appointed Sir. Kenneth MacMillan -- the Royal Ballet's principal choreographer -- as his artistic associate. MacMillan's opulent, evening-length version of "Romeo and Juliet" (not to be confused with John Cranko's version, performed here last week by the Joffrey Ballet) will be one of ABT's premiere attractions, taking up the entire last week of the run.

This weekend's highlights include the Washington premiere of ballerina Martine Van Hamel's cool, mythical "Amnon v'Tamar"; a revival of Balanchine's "Theme and Variations"; and several performances of "Field, Chair and Mountain," artist David Gordon's first work ever for a ballet company. AMERICAN BALLET THEATER -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through January 6.