For culture shock of the positive variety nothing in recent memory has quite matched an initial encounter with the National Dance Theatre of Zaire. The company presented its "dance-opera" "Nkenge" at Lisner Auditorium last night in the first of two performances marking the end of the troupe's five-day Washington visit. At once primal in its earth-rooted energies, musically captivating and sumptuous in theatrical resource, "Nkenge" is an artistic phenomenon of imposing magnitude.

It's difficult to overestimate the size of the discovery. Zaire, its immense territory covering the major portion of what was formerly known as the Congo, is the third-largest African nation, and a land inhabited by more than 250 ethnic groups. Yet the current tour of the National Dance Theatre is its first in the United States. The trip came about as the result of a site visit by Andrew Gilboy of the African-American Insitute and Ellen Stewart of New York's La Mama Theater, who arranged the tour with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and a sizable number of corporate sponsors -- the Washington engagement, for example, has been underwritten by Exxon and the National Bank of Washington. In this city, as in others, the troupe's activities have included not only performances but classes, workshops, panel discussions and exchanges with local arts groups.

"Nkenge" enlists native Zairian arts of music, dance and mime in the telling of a traditional moral tale of universal appeal. The title names a proud village beauty, who, to the distress of her parents, rejects one suitor after another, only to settle on a glamorous stranger who promises her untold riches. But when her new husband whisks Nkenge away after the nuptial ceremony, it is revealed that he is the Devil, and that he and his demon companions are intent on hideous ravishment. Nkenge is rescued, however, by the magical intervention of a "wise fool" -- her brother, the village simpleton. Now it is Nkenge's turn to be rejected, by her fellow villagers, until a rite of exorcism (danced by the astonishingly volcanic guest artists of the Isiga troupe) brings the sadly penitent young woman once again into the good graces of her people.

The musical overture, involving solo and choral chanting to the accompaniment of a remarkable panoply of instruments, has a mellow euphony about it that harbors distinctly Caribbean echoes for Western ears. Though the music never ceases, the story can be plainly read from the performers' movements alone, and the lucid choreography by the troupe's artistic director Ngonda Bagonda not only draws upon a multitude of regional styles but provides amazingly sharp characterizations for the principal roles. Mokio Mongili is the seductive Nkenge; Somolo Goga is her sympathetically drawn savior-brother; and Majamu Katende, whose dazzlingly acrobatic dancing shows traces of Western balletic influence, is the agile Devil. The entire company, though, is a source of wonder -- they give "Nkenge" the fire and conviction that heat it to incandescence.

The work will be repeated tonight at Lisner.