Ballet season features contemporary dance, Riverdance and Cleopatra

A queen is floating our way on a barge full of ballet goodies: monumental sets, glittering costumes, and a score sure to arouse passion. That seductress is none other than the lead in Cleopatra, and if it's big story ballets you like, then this is your ticket.

choreographer Ben Stevenson, who a few years ago breathed new life into large-scale narrative with his Dracula, brings this other blockbuster to Ballet Florida. With a cast of engaging dancers, and production to drum up epic proportions, the Palm Beach company will provide transport to a land where fantasy overlaps history and Petipa meets Cinemascope.

And to keep our hearts beating to tales of classic romance, BF will also put on the second act of Val Caniparoli's Lady of the Camellias.

For a long time BF has been the guardian of a collection of contemporary dance, unique in our area, presenting works by Peter Martins, Lar Lubovitch, Vicente Nebrada and Trey McIntyre, all represented this coming year.

Add premieres by veteran John Cranko and still young but wily Jerry Opdenaker, and the list of BF choreographers gains a golden ring.

An Opdenaker premiere, too, helps fulfill Ballet Gamonet's promise to showcase today's talent, an important goal further met with works by William Soleau and Mark Godden. Artistic director Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros' own output goes for classical flair in Grand Pas Classique and Divertimento Español, the Spanish flavor hiked up with his Carmen.

Cleopatra will find fabled company in Princess Aurora when American Ballet Theatre returns, for the second year in a row, with Sleeping Beauty. Artistic director Kevin McKenzie's version has brushed away some of the kiddy-lit cuteness and shadowed in areas for greater psychodrama; however that colors our impression, we can expect keen dancing in a gorgeous setting.

Don't close the book on the fairy-tale, though, until you see how Miami City Ballet ends its version of Aurora's Wedding, featuring a triumphant concluding act with some of the most famous moments in ballet. That's it for the warhorses from MCB this year, but the company is strutting out programs with plenty of panache. From their dominant Balanchine come both curiosities (the phantasmagoric glamour of La Valse; the fun frou-frou of Bourrée Fantasque) and standards (Pas de Dix, Square Dance).

And serving as both a Mr. B primer and summation, the full-evening Jewels will dress up the stage. From the elegant esprit of the French-scented Emeralds, through the New York nerve of Rubies, to the imperial gleam of Diamonds, this triptych's got it all.

MCB will not lack contemporary power either. It gets a charge from Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy, but the lightning bolt this year comes from Twyla Tharp, who's creating a work on the company using the music of Elvis Costello. As queen of the juke-box dansicals, the choreographer will no doubt fire off excitement parallel to the rock artist's versatile takes on life's furor and ironies. Her Nine Sinatra Songs is also on.

With equally Cool Vibrations, a hit-parade program, the Joffrey Ballet -- which first provided a large canvas for Tharp to pour out her dashes and squiggles to pop music -- is set for a visit. The iconic Martha Graham Dance Company heads the list of groups carrying the modern-dance torch; this includes Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre, Pilobolus, Momix, Philadanco and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

No less essential in its niche, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, a cultivator of the splayed hand and the thrust-out hip, will pitch pizzazz. And the dance rim juts out, jagged and plunging, for the daring works of compactly intricate Susan Marshall & Company, and the dance-theater of Argentina's Diana Szeinblum.

Borders come down in world dance, notably this year with African Footprint, where drumming fuses multicultural connections, and India's Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, equally robust and exquisite. Musafir: Gypsies of Rajasthan speeds a caravan of exotic sights and sounds.

And Riverdance keeps the green flowing while Lord of the Dance still answers prayers for Irish extravaganza. Grandparents to those purveyors of pumped-up folk traditions, Ballet Folklórico de México and the 70-year-old Moiseyev Dance Company return with vigor unabated.