At the conclusion of the hour-long first act of "The Idiot," given its Washington premiere last night as the Berlin Ballet began a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, a woman turned to answer a neighbor who'd asked what on earth was going on, what it all meant. "You won't find out by watching, that's for sure," came the reply.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the major difficulty with this mammoth production based on Feodor Dostoevsky's esteemed novel about human fallibility. Choreographer Valery Panov has created a staggeringly vast histrionic panorama, serious and tragic in tone, crammed with incident and confrontation, faithful in outline and detail to the Dostoevsky narrative. But while the ballet is heavy with atmosphere and freighted to the limit with portentous symbolism, it skims over the surface of the emotional, moral and psychological complexities that are the heart of the book. And the slender dance component that Panov provides cannot at all bear the burden of character and meaning it is intended to carry.

Panov has given us the dramatic shell, but not the deeper core, which animates and illumines the drama itself. In short, if you wondered how a choreographer could have translated onto a dance stage the subleties of feeling and motivation of a literary work like "The Idiot," the answer is, he hasn't. The ballet is, at best, a simulation of the externals of the story, with some gross symbolism externally applied to mimic the novel's profundity.

Within these limitations, the principal artists -- Rudolf Nureyev as the saintly Prince Myshkin, Valery Panov as the ruthlessly passionate Rogozhin, Eva Evodokimova as the turbulent, earthy Natasya, and Galina Panove as the gentle Aglaja -- manage to develop very impressive characterizations, transcending the pallor of the choreography with their dramatic presences and personal magnetism. It must also be said that Panov has found music -- anthologized from the symphonic, chamber, stage and film scores of Dmtri Schostakovich -- which not only suits the general tenor of the story, but also actually does some of the work the dancing fails to do.

Such dancing as there is has no discernible governing style, or rather, so many different styles so erratically juxtaposed as to insure disunity. The big duets between Myshkin and Nastasya, Myshkin and Aglaja, Rogozhin and Natasya that occur at emotionally climatic junctures in the plot tend to look like the kind of overembellished Soviet rhapsodies that John Cranko appropriated for his dramatic ballets.

The gypsy revel of Act II resembles a number out of the Moiseyev folkloric repertoire. All of a sudden, in the quartet for the four principals in Act III before the denouncement, we get something that appears to be a Russian version of Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavane," both in layout and movement vocabulary. The waltz divertissement of Act III sneaks in some imitation Petipa.

And so it goes. The same stylistic dishevelment, by and large, applies to the overall dramaturgy -- some scenes have "realistic"-looking projected backdrops, others have highly sytlized props and decor, and at least one looks like a German expressionist episode from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

It is hard to tell, under such circumstances, what the Berlin Ballet may be like as a ballet company. At the same time, it is clear that this 75-member troupe under the artistic direction of Gert Reinholm, so international in its personnel, is quite ably schooled in the presentation of dramatic effects.

Prince Myshkin, in the ballet as in the novel, is a Christlike-innocent, afflicted with epilepsy, who enters the lives of Natasya, Rogozhin and Algaja with his purity and goodness, but is unable to effect either their redemption or his own. It is clear from Panov's staging that Myshin is somehow torn between two women, but the whys and hows of the relationships remain obscure without intimate knowledge of the novel.

Perhaps the most effectively delineated liaison is the one between Myshkin and Rogozhin -- indeed, the very first scene of the ballet, in which they meet and are almost mystically attracted to one another, is dramatically stronger than anything that follows. Nevertheless, in the course of the following action, it becomes clear that the two men, so opposed in temperament, represent the angelic and demonic sides of a single human soul. It is, moreover, the portrayal of this affinity of opposites by Nureyev and Panov which gave the opening night performance of the ballet its most powerful thrust.

When all is said and done, Panov must be credited with one formidable accomplishment apart from his own acting -- he makes one want desperately to read, or re-read, the book.