The advent of a new autumn season in the arts gives an illusion of spring, tiding us over until the next real one comes along. Just as the air turns chill and the inflamed leaves start to fall and curl, our stages and concert halls blossom in word, tone and movement. Nature is cadence, against which our new round of performances posits a counterpoint of defiant renewal.

The 1987-88 Washington dance season is already under way and bubbling. A free, alfresco, afternoon-long African harvest festival, "Homowo," is being presented on the Mall today by the Washington-based Odadaa! troupe, while at Dance Place tonight, New York's Stephen Petronio Dance Company gives the last of three performances marking its area debut. The tempo of events remains relatively leisurely until the beginning of October, when the Dance Place's ambitious "Japan-America Dance Project" -- involving three visiting troupes and a multitude of activities throughout the month -- loosens a deluge that will roll on without pause until the New Year.

Though there's nothing so radically different about the upcoming dance calendar that one would speak of a "trend," this doesn't mean there's not an ample store of goodies to anticipate. If there's a thematic undercurrent, it may be that of old acquaintance renewed, as a number of visiting artists and troupes return after appreciable absence, and some home-grown projects of the past are resurrected in new guise.

Here, then, an overview of the highlights:

The biggest news of the Kennedy Center's ballet series is the return of the peerless New York City Ballet after an absence of two years, for a fortnight in mid-October, featuring such Washington premieres as the Jerome Robbins-Twyla Tharp collaboration "Brahms/Handel" and Peter Martins' "Ecstatic Orange," as well as locally unseen new productions of such Balanchine ballets as "La Sonnambula" and his version of "Swan Lake." In December, the Joffrey Ballet brings its brand-new "Nutcracker," with sets by Oliver Smith, to the Opera House fresh from its premiere in Iowa City. Two foreign companies will be appearing, one newcomer -- the Royal Spanish National Ballet in December -- and one returnee -- the Royal Danish Ballet next June. Rounding out the ballet menu at the Kennedy Center will be the Houston Ballet, leading off the ballet season in October, and in 1988, the Dance Theatre of Harlem (March), the Washington Ballet (at the Eisenhower Theater in May), and American Ballet Theatre (June).

On the subject of ballet visitors from abroad: An ad hoc touring troupe of Soviet dancers led by the Bolshoi Ballet's illustrious Vyacheslav Gordeyev will commence a two-month cross-country tour within striking distance of us at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, where it will present three separate programs starting Sept. 24. Also, a 200-year old troupe from Poland making its debut tour of the United States, the Warsaw Ballet, will perform its version of "Giselle" at Montgomery College in early November.

Two major return engagements after longish absence will mark the "Dance America" series presented annually by the Washington Performing Arts Society in cooperation with the Kennedy Center. At the start of the series in October, the Erick Hawkins Dance Company will present a three-program retrospective of Hawkins' path-breaking choreography; the penultimate event of the series will be Twyla Tharp Dance in April, returning for the first time since 1982. In March, an outstanding addition to the series roster will be Washington's own Daniel West Dancers, which has advanced to the forefront of the area's contemporary scene on the strength of West's hardball idiom and his splendid company of dancers.

Other troupes new to the series will be Nina Wiener and Dancers, in early December, and a youthful Bronx-based troupe, Mafata, later the same month. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, ever a popular favorite in this city, will bring up the series rear in late May and early June (dates changed from earlier fliers).

Lots will be new for the Washington Ballet and its fans this season, starting with the return of former company headliners Patricia Miller and James Canfield, after successful stints with the Joffrey Ballet and the Portland Ballet Theatre. Both will dance; Canfield, in addition, has been appointed assistant artistic director and will also choreograph for the troupe. Associate artistic director Choo San Goh will create a new work for the company this season, and will also be represented by a pair of ballets choreographed for other troupes but not hitherto danced by the Washington Ballet, plus two revivals.

In addition, major works by Paul Taylor ("Esplanade") and Balanchine ("Square Dance") will join the repertory during the troupe's fall series at Lisner Auditorium in October. Seven new dancers will complement 15 remaining from last season. Next May, the company will return to the Kennedy Center for a second year for performances at the Eisenhower Theater, this time with two distinct programs.

The new performance series at the Dance Place -- the city's pace-setting center for contemporary dance -- promises to rival in breadth, depth and novelty last year's jampacked edition. There'll be a slew of visiting and indigenous artists and troupes, in programs running almost every weekend from now through early June (to be followed by another summer series) -- too many to cite individually. Presentations new to Dance Place will include the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble; the Stephen Petronio Dance Company; Kei Takei's Moving Earth and Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks (both part of the "Japan-America Dance Project" along with Eiko & Koma); the Shapiro & Smith duo from New York; Philadelphia-based Steve Krieckhaus; New York's Sara Skaggs; and the innovative "movement-theater" troupe the Adaptors (cosponsored by WPAS).

After a year's lapse, WPAS is reviving its "New Series," which will also include, besides Nina Wiener and Dancers (noted above as part of the "Dance America" series), Martha Clarke's Hieronymus Bosch-inspired "Garden of Earthly Delights," to run four performances at the Warner Theatre in February. Other WPAS dance attractions will include "Flamenco Puro," from the same team that created "Tango Argentino," appearing at the Warner in November; and the Virsky Ukrainian State Dance Company of the U.S.S.R., at Constitution Hall in February.

"Garden of Earthly Delights" will be cosponsored by District Curators, which is also presenting the popular dance-theater troupe Pilobolus at the Warner in November, and performance artist Ping Chong and his Fuji Company at the Marvin Theatre with their "Angels of Swedenborg" in March.

Flamenco artist Marita Benitez and her troupe, Estampa Flamenca, will be returning to the Terrace Theater for four performances later this month, under the Kennedy Center's auspices.

Dance artists and troupes resident in the Washington area will be given unaccustomedly broad exposure in new showcase formats at the the Kennedy Center this season -- an important breakthrough for locally based artists. As part of "Washington, Front and Center" -- a Kennedy Center series highlighting Washington artists of various media -- a Dance Gala with an accent on the area's characteristic diversity of styles will be presented at the Terrace Theater Oct. 12. Carla Perlo, Larry Warren and Sharon Wyrrick will be among the participating artists.

A second such gala is being planned for 1988. And next May, also at the Terrace Theater, WPAS will resume its "City Dance" series, aimed at demonstrating the high level of accomplishment of resident artists.

There are any number of other individual events worthy of note -- too many for individual citation here. By way of example, a handful of such are: a new installment in the Dance Exchange's "Evenings of Exchange" series, suspended last season but now to be resumed, in October, as part of Mount Vernon College's splendid modern dance series; also in October, an appearance as part of a first American tour by the Mongolian State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble, at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium; and a new program next April by the exemplary Maryland Dance Theater, back in business after a season's sabbatical, as part of the lively series at the Prince George's Publick Playhouse.

A number of individual events, and some series as well, are either not yet set or not thus far announced, so check weekly listings for more complete and up-to-date information. In the meantime, here are known calendar specifics:

SEPTEMBER: Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble, Dance Place, Sept. 18-20; Maria Benitez Estampa Flamenca, Terrace Theater, Sept. 23-26; Thompson and Trammell, Mount Vernon College, Sept. 25-26.

OCTOBER: Kei Takei and Moving Earth, Dance Place, Oct. 1-4 and 8-11; Harbor City Ballet, Publick Playhouse, Oct. 2-4; Houston Ballet, Kennedy Center Opera House, Oct. 6-11; Evening of Exchange, Mount Vernon College, Oct. 9-10; Mongolian State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble, Baird Auditorium, Oct. 10; Dance Gala, Terrace Theater, Oct. 12; New York City Ballet, Kennedy Center Opera House, Oct. 14-25; Washington Ballet, Lisner Auditorium, Oct. 15-17; Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks, Dance Place, Oct. 15-18; Yoko Harada King, Mount Vernon College, Oct. 16-17; Dance at Dupont, Joy of Motion Studio, Oct. 17-18; Jones-Haywood Junior Dancers, Pavilion at Old Post Office, Oct. 18; Karin Vartowski, Terrace Theater, Oct. 22; Claudia Murphey Dance Company, George Mason University, Oct., 22-24; Graciela Tapia Ballet Folklorico Mexicano, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Oct. 24; Eiko & Koma, Dance Place, Oct. 24-25; Erick Hawkins Dance Company, Terrace Theater, Oct. 27-31.

NOVEMBER: Pilobolus, Warner Theatre, Nov. 5; African Heritage Dancers and Drummers annual Black Dance Festival, site to be announced, Nov. 6-8; D.C. Contemporary Dance Theater, Spanish Dance Society, and KanKouran West African Dance Company, Dance Place, Nov. 7-8; Warsaw Ballet, Montgomery College Performing Arts Center, Nov. 8; Flamenco Puro, Warner Theatre, Nov. 10-15; Joel Hoyer and Sally Nash, Dance Place, Nov. 14-15; University of Maryland Dance in Concert, Studio Theater EE, Nov. 18-21; Chinese Festival of Song & Dance, Warner Theatre, Nov. 20-22; Baltimore Dance Theatre, Mount Vernon College, Nov. 20-21; Dance at Dupont, Joy of Motion Studio, Nov. 21-22; Martita Goshen, Earthworks, Dance Place Nov. 21-22; "Nutcracker," American Contemporary Ballet, Publick Playhouse, Nov. 27-29.

DECEMBER: Improvisations Unlimited, University of Maryland Studio Theater EE, Dec. 2-5; George Mason Dance Company, George Mason University, Dec. 3-5; Shapiro & Smith, Dance Place, Dec. 5-6; Jones-Haywood Junior Dancers, Pavilion at Old Post Office, Dec. 6; Nina Wiener and Dancers, Terrace Theater, Dec. 8-9; Royal Spanish National Ballet, Kennedy Center Opera House, Dec. 9-13; Steve Krieckhaus, Dance Place, Dec. 11-13; "Cinderella," Montgomery Ballet Company, Publick Playhouse, Dec. 11-13; Mafata, Terrace Theater, Dec. 15; Joffrey Ballet, "Nutcracker," Kennedy Center Opera House, Dec. 16-27; Washington Ballet, "Nutcracker," Lisner Auditorium, Dec. 18-31; Dance Place Student Company, Dance Place, Dec. 19-20.

THE NEW YEAR: Aside from the series and events already cited above, the Washington Ballet will present a spring series at Lisner Auditorium, March 3-5, as well as the two noted programs at the Eisenhower Theater, May 4-8; the City Dance festival is scheduled for the Terrace Theater, May 18-20; and Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre will be presented at George Mason University's Harris Theatre, May 15. Many additional events can be expected to be added to the roster, and regular series will continue at the Kennedy Center, Dance Place, Mount Vernon College, Publick Playhouse and elsewhere. Wolf Trap plans to present the Paris Opera Ballet next summer, as well as other international troupes still under negotiation.