Kathakkali, which means "story-play", is one of four major genres of Indian dance, with a history stretching back at least 300 years. It is cultivated in the southwest coastal region of India, and last night a troupe from the Kerala Kalamandalam -- the leading Kathakali conservatory -- gave the first of two performances at Baird Auditorium, as the season's final presentation in the Smithsonian's "World Explorer" series. What was revealed was a fascinating blend of theatrical arts, marked on the one hand by the most exquisite subtleties of craft and expression, and on the other by bursts of rough, earthy vigor.

The vigor comes partly from the strong martial background of the form. Unlike the more familiar Bharata Natyam style of Indian dance, Kathakali is almost exclusively a male province, men taking roles of both sexes. Extreme stylization is another characteristic -- the ample costumes and masks bedazzle with color and fantasy; the makeup is so painstakingly elaborate it requires hours to don, and involves such techniques as placing seeds in the eyes to turn them pink or red. Delicate flutterings or dartings of the brows, the cheeks and eyes are among the myriad dramatic elements of the form.

The stories are taken from traditional epic and myth; last night's opus concerned the vengeance meted out by the god Shiva for the incivility of King Daksha, and Daksha's eventual redemption. Mime, facial expression, singing, drumming and dancing played equal parts in the telling. The dance movement, with the body weight curiously resting on the outer edge of the feet, combines percussiveness with a floating, almost levitating quality. The exotic stylization and such features as the complex hand signs make the symbolism of Kathakali difficult to penetrate. But the visual enticements, the liveliness of the characterizations, the rhythmic viality and the expressive intensity transcend all barriers to communication.