"I WARNED my husband that once the New York City Ballet arrived here, he wouldn't be seeing me for two weeks," a dance-fiend pal told me recently. Since the NYCB's arrival at the Kennedy Center Wednesday, many an area ballet enthusiast has temporarily forsaken hearth and home for the pleasures offered by this incomparable ensemble.

Last seen here in 1985, the company will perform a feast of 17 ballets, nine by its late great founder and guiding light George Balanchine, five by ballet master-in-chief Jerome Robbins (one with Twyla Tharp), and three by ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins. Four of these ballets are Washington premieres, while two others boast entirely new productions.

"Brahms/Handel," the most eagerly anticipated of the Kennedy Center premieres, represents an unprecedented collaboration between Robbins and Tharp, as well as Tharp's first creation for the NYCB dancers. Unlike the latter's unorthodox creations for her own troupe and for American Ballet Theatre, "Brahms/Handel" eschews the beloved Tharpian vocabulary of slouches and shimmies while retaining her characteristic speed, complex configurations and movement witticisms.

Robbins' contribution is subtler; in fact, it's difficult to tell where one choreographer left off and the other began.

Also new to D.C. are three ballets by Martins, whose work divides itself into two neat categories: sacredly neo-classical and profanely contemporary. "Les Gentilhommes," a virtuosic exercise for nine men set to the music of Handel, and "Les Petits Riens," a Mozart-inspired ballet for four young couples, fall into the first category. "Ecstatic Orange," dedicated to the memory of Andy Warhol, and set to a score by contemporary American composer Michael Torke, features a principal couple and 14 others moving in frankly sexual, chaotic ways.

Balanchine's distilled, "plotless" version of "Swan Lake" has been made even more intriguing thanks to Alain Vaes' new decor and costumes. All swans but Queen Odette now wear black tutus; the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart has taken on a birdlike aura, and the ballet unfolds in a frozen winter landscape framed by the ruins of a Gothic ice palace. Vaes has also redesigned the choreographers' eerie "La Sonambula."

Owing to some unfortunate scheduling, the Washington Ballet's fall series coincides with NYCB's appearances this weekend. Audiences should avail themselves of both groups if possible, for the local troupe's current program is one of their most interesting ever. The program opens with Balanchine's 1957 "Square Dance," a thoroughly individual paean to American social dance and the classical ballet tradition. Resident choreographer Choo-San Goh weighs in with "Moments Remembered," a movement essay on lost love set to the music of Scriabin. Finally, the company tackles Paul Taylor's signature work "Esplanade," one of the friendliest, most accessible and brilliantly crafted works ever created. NEW YORK CITY BALLET --

Through October 25. Kennedy Center Opera House.


Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8. Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets NW. 362-3606.