February -- now there's a great dance month, with appearances by American Ballet Theatre, Martha Graham Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group and others. March looks good too. But while early 2005 is thick with promise, it takes some searching to ferret out this fall's highlights.

Major companies will arrive late in the season at the Kennedy Center, for instance, because the Washington Opera will be kicking off its fall performances in the Opera House. The first ballet event of the center's 2004-05 series is the Joffrey Ballet's appealing Americana-themed "Nutcracker," which slips into the Opera House during Thanksgiving week, Nov. 24 to 28, with no performance on the holiday. The meatier ballet performances don't arrive until 2005, headed by the Kirov Ballet's "Cinderella," a somewhat controversial production by Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, Jan. 11 to 16.

The Kennedy Center isn't the only venue whose dance season gets a slow start. One of the first performances of note will come next month, when Shane O'Hara brings his politically inspired "Biting My Tongue and Other Solo Dance Adventures" to Joy of Motion's intimate Jack Guidone Theater.

In a politically charged fall, it seems particularly appropriate -- and strangely rare -- to have art reflect the times.

The Washington Ballet, last seen at the close of the spring season whirling around in new works in a cabaret setting, will don demure white tulle and tights in the full-length "Giselle" Oct. 20 through 24 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Artistic Director Septime Webre and colleague Charla Genn are choreographing the work, based on the traditional romantic-era story of betrayal and forgiveness under moonlight.

Webre will have more of a free rein in his new "Nutcracker," which, like the Joffrey version, will have elements of early American history woven into the time-worn tale -- you know, George Washington as the Nutcracker Prince, King George III as his rodent nemesis, that sort of thing. This million-dollar "Nutcracker," which replaces the company's 42-year-old version by founder Mary Day, runs Dec. 9 through 26 at the Warner Theatre. Webre promises that some of Day's best-loved moments will be retained in his version, along with her tradition of incorporating students from the School of the Washington Ballet. In another passing-of-the-torch moment, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Rebecca Wright takes over from Day as school director this season, which marks the school's 60th anniversary.

One of the biggest anniversaries in the dance world this season will be marked by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, celebrating its 50th year. Taylor, whose wit and acuity continue to invigorate the art form, will present a new work during his engagement at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, accompanied -- in Taylor's typically offbeat way -- by bluegrass-klezmer music. Also on the bill Dec. 16-18 are Taylor classics "Arden Court" and "Eventide."

The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland hosts highly regarded New York-based choreographer Doug Varone for a residency, culminating in the performances of a new work Oct. 29 through 31. In an effort to make his brand of modern dance -- imbued with ambiguity and enigma -- more accessible, Varone has been posting a blog on the center's Web site to discuss his process. The new work, "Deconstructing English," is accompanied by J.S. Bach's "English Suites" and, Varone says, is a tribute to creativity and the human experience.

Locally based choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess reprises two successful endeavors at the Lincoln Theatre on Nov. 5: "Tracings," which is inspired by Korean immigration to the United States and was first performed at the Kennedy Center last year, and solo works by Japanese choreographer Michio Ito. The Tokyo-born Ito studied and collaborated with such dance legends as Martha Graham, Lester Horton and Ted Shawn before moving on to Hollywood to work in film and mount lavish spectacles at the Hollywood Bowl. His career was cut short when he was interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and he was eventually deported to Japan. He left behind a body of works both bold and delicate, a glowing sampling of which Burgess revived in 1996 with the help of a few dancers who had worked with Ito. It will be good to see them again.

You'll notice fewer international troupes are stopping by than in previous years, perhaps because of reduced touring funds and increased visa restrictions in the post-9/11 world. Among the few imports this season will be Australia's Bangarra Dance Theatre, with its evocative mix of modern dance with traditional Aboriginal art and culture, appearing at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Nov. 5 and 6. Also Nov. 6, the perennially touring and inexhaustibly energetic Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company will drill their heels into the center's Concert Hall stage.

Doug Varone, shown with his company, will be in residence this fall at the University of Maryland, and will perform at the Clarice Smith Center Oct. 29-31.Tati Valle-Riestra, left, and Dana Tai Soon Burgess last year in "Tracings." Burgess will reprise the piece Nov. 5 at the Lincoln Theatre.Australia's Bangarra Dance Theatre brings its Aboriginal-influenced works to D.C.