WHO SAYS Washington isn't a ballet town? Certainly not Jason Palmquist, vice president for dance administration at the Kennedy Center. In the past decade, Palmquist says, he has seen nearly exponential growth in the quantity and quality of the Kennedy Center's ballet programming. Ballet's doldrums in the 1980s and early '90s were followed by a renewed commitment to bring the highest-caliber shows to the Kennedy Center -- fed by the local ballet-going public's nearly insatiable interest and demand for tickets to performances by the most selective troupes.

The upcoming International Ballet Festival is a case in point. When this exceptional gathering of a half-dozen of the world's top ballet companies opens Tuesday for a two-week run at the Eisenhower Theater, tickets will be nearly impossible to come by, Palmquist says.

"We've seen truly incredible growth at the Kennedy Center as a presenter of ballet in this country," Palmquist says, noting that the turning point occurred during the summer of 2000 when the Kennedy Center sponsored a national tour of one of the ballet world's grandest companies of all, Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet.

For the coming fortnight, nowhere in the world will more ballet star power be found beneath one roof. In addition to a unit from the incomparable Bolshoi Ballet performing selections from the Russian classics (the pas de deux from "Don Quixote," Michel Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose" and Kasian Goleizovsky's "Narcissus"), the 281-year-old Royal Danish Ballet brings an ensemble to dance the beloved pas de six and tarantella from the third-act variations of August Bournonville's "Napoli." Finally, American Ballet Theatre presents Jerome Robbins's masterful melding of American vernacular style and classical technique, "Fancy Free," a cunning display of brashness and beguilement that follows a trio of sailors on leave in Manhattan, circa World War II.

The following week features the evocative "Kingdom of the Shades" scene from "La Bayadere," with its slowly advancing line of white-clad corps de ballet members executing perfect arabesques. A Marius Petipa masterpiece, it's danced by St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet. Adam Cooper and dancers from the English National Ballet revive a rare Kenneth MacMillan work, "Sea of Troubles," a contemplation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Then the white-hot Miami City Ballet brings George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," a stringent abstraction of the four ancient temperaments -- melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric -- danced to Paul Hindemith's rigorous score.

"On two separate evenings to see six of the greatest companies of the world, each performing repertory that is reflective of their particular contribution to the art form -- this is unique," Palmquist says. "I think it's unprecedented."

KENNEDY CENTER INTERNATIONAL BALLET FESTIVAL -- Tuesday through March 16 in the Eisenhower Theater. Tuesday-March 9: American Ballet Theatre, Bolshoi Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. March 12-16: Kirov Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Adam Cooper and Company with dancers from the English National Ballet. Call 202-467-4600.

Miami City Ballet will perform George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" during the Kennedy Center's impressive International Ballet Festival.