At the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, American Ballet Theatre fnally gave Washington its first look at "La Bayadere," Natalia Makarova's staging of Marius Petipa's 1877 romantic extraveganza set in ancient India. The production -- at an estimated cost of half a million dollars, one of the company's most opulent of recent years -- received its premiere last May at the Metropolitan Opera House, and was later given a live telecast.

In the flesh, the effect is pretty much as it was on the scsreen, only more so -- at once dazzling and anticlimatic. Given the colossal scale and detailed finery of PierLuigi Samaritani's sets and Theoni Aldredge's costumes, as well as the piquancy of the subject, the ballet will doubtlessly have its admirers as pure spectacle. It also has undeniable, if equivocal, value as a historical document, since it adds to our persepective of Petipa through a reconstruction of one of his epochal achievements. But in the present version, at least, it also, goes to show that the part sometimes can exceed the whole -- the celebrated "Kingdom of the Shades" act familiar to us in ABT repertory since Makarova's own splendid production of 1974, turns out to be a far more satisfying entity by itself than this lavish enlargement.

The "Kingdom of the Shades," which becomes Act II in Makarova's complete "Bayadere," shows us Petipa'sgenius at its height, in a scene famous for its "white ballet" formalisms and distilled classical style. The rest of the ballet, however, is in the traditon of the French grand opera a la Meyerbeer -- the plot and setting even evokes "Aida."

The story, about a temple dancer ("bayadere") named Nikiya whose love for the warrior Solor is sabotagedby her rival, Gamzatti, the Rajah's daughter, gives the ballet sundry links with other romantic material of dance history, from "Giselle" to "Swan Lake." The exotic touches, melodramatic mime scenes and extraneous dance diversions which Ptipa employed to flesh out the drama, however, don't stand up to the elevated abstactions of the "Shades" scene -- the effect is of a Sabu movie with one unaccountably sublime sequence. filtered as it has been through the revisions, interpolations and cuts of its Soviet peregrinations and Makarova's own reshapings and inventions, leaves one in doubt as to just how much Petipa is left to see. And since the "arrangement" of the Minkus score by John Lanchbery has cheapened and overdecorated the "Shades" scene, the latter was more impressive when it stood alone than it is in its new context.

Except for the "Shades" episode, which is choreographically glorious for both soloists and corps de ballet, the pure dance elements of "La Bayadere" are fairly skimpy, and since the dramatic characterization is shallow throughout, there's not much for the cast to sink its feet into. In the telecast, Makarova triumphed as Nikiya through sheer star magnetism and an instinct for the style that possibly only she posses. Martine van Hamel, as last night's Nikiya, danced with her customary regality and poise in the classic passages, but was rather pallid elsewhere, despite her beautifully arched back and other admirable nuances.

Alexander Gudonov's dancing as Solor had more composure and address than anything we've seen from him so far, and his florid mime at least fit the mold of the ballet. Cynthia Gregory, in her debut as Gamzatti, was as stunning as the rather thin part allows. Warren Conover as a fakir, and especially Johan Renvall as the Bronze Idol of Act III, dispatched their tricky, vaulting solos brilliantly and the rest of the large cast seemed to have been well coached in the stagey exoticism by Makarova. There's a lot here for the eye, but not much for the head or heart.