From the standpoint of the dance world at large, 1987 was a year of momentous shift -- of saddening departures on the one hand, and returns and renewals on the other.

The death of George Balanchine in 1983 marked the demise not just of an extraordinary pathfinder, but of an entire age of choreographic development. In a similar way this past year, an unusually heavy toll of fatalities among leading dance artists seemed to be not only a weighty loss of individuals, but also a series of punctuation marks in the evolution of important genres and institutions.

Fred Astaire, Antony Tudor, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Nora Kaye, Choo-San Goh -- simply to name them, the most prominent of a much longer list, is to see whole slices of history passing by on the way to eternity.

Astaire was not only the personification of masculine grace, a movie star, a popular idol and by general agreement the greatest of American dancers, but the creator and peerless exponent of a new art form wedding the film camera to a unique fusion of tap, ballet and ballroom dance.

Tudor, whose move from his native England to this country and his long association with American Ballet Theatre constituted an entire chapter in dance history, was the unrivaled master of balletic psychodrama and one of the three choreographic giants of the post-Diaghilev era (along with Balanchine and Sir Frederick Ashton).

Between them, Fosse ("Cabaret," "All That Jazz," "Dancin' ") and Bennett ("Company," "A Chorus Line," "Dreamgirls") gave the dance musical, on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood, a brilliant, two-decade period of efflorescence with a sexy, sophisticated new idiom they alone fully commanded.

Nora Kaye, a founding member of ABT in 1939 and the Tudor heroine nonpareil, was quite likely the last of a class of ballerinas in whom the arts of acting, dramatic characterization and dancing were embodied in an unforced union of singular power and eloquence.

The loss closest to home was that of Goh, the Singapore-born choreographer whose death at 39 last month deprived the Washington Ballet both of its associate artistic director and its creative spark and inspiration.

The impact of Goh's loss is international in scope -- his ballets are in the repertories not only of such major domestic troupes as ABT, the Joffrey Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, but also of companies in Europe, Israel and Latin America. He was, moreover, one of the very few choreographers of his generation to have achieved such stature.

For the Washington cultural scene and the Washington Ballet in particular, Goh's absence is bound to have complex and far-reaching reverberations. It was Goh's arrival in Washington in 1976, at the invitation of Washington Ballet Artistic Director Mary Day, that energized the company's spectacular growth over the past decade.

The technical demands of his fast, intricate, original choreographic idiom bred a new deftness and electricity among the troupe's dancers. The musical and expressive range of his works extended their interpretive reach and called forth higher levels of artistic maturity. On the strength of his ballets, the company has undertaken successful tours of this country, Europe, South America and the Far East (the next, to Taiwan, is scheduled for January).

Goh's works are the backbone of the Washington Ballet repertory. In the troupe's three sets of programs this year alone, audiences saw his "Configurations" (also the subject of the recent videocassette "Baryshnikov: The Dancer and the Dance," featuring the virtuoso who commissioned it), "Variations Serieuses," "Unknown Territory," "Fives" and "Moments Remembered," as well as the Chinese Dance he devised for the company's annual "Nutcracker," currently on display at Lisner Auditorium.

The company, understandably, has thus far scarcely begun to broach the ponderous questions regarding its future raised by Goh's loss. Replacement, of course -- in the sense of equivalent substitution -- is impossible; in sundry obvious respects, Goh was one of a kind. Still, the questions will have to be faced: To what extent, and how, will posthumous stagings of Goh's ballets be affected by artistic and legal provisions of his estate? From what source or sources will the company seek the stimulating, substantive new choreography that must continue to be the heart of its enterprise -- from resident choreographers, from invited guests, from some combination of the two categories? Who will be able to galvanize the dancers in the way Goh did? And who will be able effectively to share the burdens of Day's administrative and artistic leadership? Can a single person fulfil all these needs simultaneously, or will it require a team?

Partial answers are already in place, and indeed, the past year has seen the company move onto a new plane of operation. Most notably, last April the troupe presented its first regular series of programs at the Kennedy Center, in the Eisenhower Theater, benefiting from both the center's cachet and the enhanced visibility it implies. This is planned to be a standard feature of the troupe's future seasons.

In August, former Washington Ballet stars James Canfield and Patricia Miller returned to the company after dancing as featured principals with the Joffrey Ballet and Pacific Ballet Theatre. Both returned as dancers; Canfield, additionally, was named assistant artistic director, and has already contributed two pieces of choreography to the troupe's programs this past year, to be followed by more in 1988 and beyond. More recently still, Kirk Peterson -- a bronze medalist at the Varna competition in 1972, a former principal dancer of Washington's National Ballet, ABT and the San Francisco Ballet, and a choreographer of some eight years' experience -- was also appointed by Day as another assistant artistic director, whose skills as a choreographer, teacher and rehearsal director will be drawn upon. Hence, at the very least, solid interim arrangements have been made to ensure the troupe's smooth functioning.

In the realm of renewal, too, an exceedingly important achievement of the year was exciting resumption of its weekly series of contemporary dance events, featuring both local and visiting artists, by Dance Place in its splendid new quarters in Brookland. Among its major offerings was the superbly planned, month-long "Japan-America Dance Project" in October, embracing performances, workshops, demonstrations, classes and outreach activities involving Kei Takei's Moving Earth, Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks, and Eiko & Koma. Melvin Deal's African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, one of the city's most estimable institutions, also weathered a difficult transition to new headquarters in the Benning area.

It was a banner year for dancer-choreographer Liz Lerman, founding director of the Dance Exchange and its multitude of spinoff entities, who returned to her home town after a two-year interval with a series of three blockbuster programs showcasing Lerman's solos, an excellently restructured version of her epic, multimedia group work "Russia" and an overview of her past and in-progress choreography. Also returning to the boards after a two-year hiatus was dancer-choreographer Sharon Wyrrick and her Full Circle troupe. A June program at Dance Place introduced her remarkably imaginative, provocative and witty "Infinite Passions," one of the most beguiling pieces of homegrown choreography within recent memory.

Returning also, in this case to the Kennedy Center Opera House, was the incomparable New York City Ballet, after a gap of a couple of seasons (too long!), with a slew of Balanchine masterworks; several Jerome Robbins ballets including a sparkling revival of the consummate spoof "The Concert"; and the Washington premieres of three recent works by co-ballet-master Peter Martins, demonstrating a conspicuous advance in choreographic resourcefulness and control, especially in "Ecstatic Orange," to a vibrant, compelling score by Michael Torke.

The most ballyhooed and overflowingly attended return was that of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, playing to packed houses at the Opera House for two weeks in July with three programs and a whole new cadre of dancers since its last Washington visit in 1975. The engagement was, in a sense, the completion of a cycle begun last year, in the wake of more easygoing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the return of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet and the huge, sleek folk dance troupe the Moiseyev Dance Company. The Bolshoi remains the world's most astoundingly bravura ballet company, with a flair for gigantism and flamboyant histrionics, most notably incarnated this time around in the troupe's new male superstar, the darkly volcanic Irek Mukhamedov. Choreographically the pickings were fairly lean among the all-Grigorivich programs (save for some traditional divertissements), which included the ludicrously moderne hodgepodge "The Golden Age," to an early, fustian Shostakovich score; a messy version of "Raymonda"; and excerpts from "Romeo and Juliet" and the promiscuously bombastic "Spartacus." On the whole, and despite some glorious dancing, it was a depressing demonstration of the stagnation of classical ballet in the Soviet Union.

A remarkable return of another sort was the surprisingly popular (five sold-out nights at the Terrace Theater) retrospective series by 78-year-old modern dance stalwart Erick Hawkins, who appeared in and led his troupe in three programs of singularly lucid and luminous beauty to lead off the '87-88 "Dance America" series in late October. Another modern dance innovator, Alwin Nikolais, 75, the wizard of multimedia, was a Kennedy Center Honoree earlier this month.

A sumptuous if artistically uneven new production of "Sleeping Beauty" by Kenneth MacMillan was a highlight of the ABT series at the Opera House in June, along with Clark Tippett's pungent new ballet "Enough Said" and a sterling interpretation of Tudor's "Pillar of Fire" with Kathleen Moore as the anguished Hagar.

Altogether new to Washington was Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, making its Opera House debut in April with several well-designed programs that showed the company to be among the nation's most scintillating classical troupes. The Opera House debut for the National Ballet of Canada also disclosed an attractive and polished group of dancers, but the repertory -- Glen Tetley's disappointing "Alice" and Ronald Hynd's dispensable "balleretta," "The Merry Widow" -- didn't show them off to best advantage, despite a beautiful account of the title role in "Alice" by Kimberly Glasco.

The most recent new production in town is the Joffrey Ballet's extremely charming, handsomely designed, ebulliently danced "The Nutcracker," staged by a team of collaborators under Joffrey's warming direction (the concluding performance at the Opera House is this afternoon). The troupe's bountiful April programs at the Opera House, including Ashton's "La Fille Mal Garde'e" and an all-Ashton evening, several works from the Diaghilev era, a lively revival of Arpino's "The Clowns" and adventurous new works by Mark Morris, Gail Khachadurian and Mark Haim provided further measure of Joffrey's vast and vastly significant contributions to American ballet (not to mention the company's epoch-making revival of Nijinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in Los Angeles and New York, which didn't come to Washington but which has been promised for the future).

Finally, a grab bag of especially memorable events in a dance year hereabouts fairly bursting with them:

Garth Fagan's new "Footprints Dressed in Red" for the Dance Theatre of Harlem; William Forsythe's "New Sleep" for the San Francisco Ballet (at Wolf Trap); a deeply affecting revival of Doris Humphrey's "Day on Earth" by the Clive Thompson DanceCompany; an evening in tribute to Capitol Ballet founder Doris Jones at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall; the extraordinary program at Ford's Theatre by the recently established American Indian Dance Theatre; the superb "Flamenco Puro" show and the National Dance Company of Senegal at the Warner; and the outstanding contemporary dance programs at sites including Dance Place, Mount Vernon College and the Terrace Theater by Mark Morris, Daniel West, Dana Reitz, Fred Holland and Steve Krieckhaus.