They sent in the clowns last night for White House counselor Ed Meese, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and Saudi Arabian Ambassador Faisal Alhegelan--and for nearly 1,300 other guests who turned out for the 27th annual Corcoran Ball.

The private gallery's annual fund-raiser turned into a circus of a party with clowns, jugglers, popcorn, men on stilts and guests who caught the infectious high spirits and joined in the fun.

Charles Wick, director of the International Communication Agency, donned a clown's red-and-blue plumed hat as he danced with Ursula Meese. Joining them on the dance floor were O'Connor and her husband, John, who knew band leader Mike Carney and wanted his wife to meet his old friend.

"I've never seen an American circus," said Nouha Alhegelan, wife of the ambassador. "But then I've been in a circus all my life."

Meese was conversing with William Draper, president of the Export-Import Bank, when a photographer asked them to pose with a clown.

"Oh, they want all the clowns together," cracked Draper.

The Corcoran Ball, which has been sophisticated and elegant at times in the past, last night took on the free spirit of the circus, which provided the theme. It was tied to the opening of the exhibition "Center Ring: The Artist (Two Centuries of Circus Art)," a collection of circus-inspired art and historical artifacts.

Painter Gene Davis used his artistic trademark--stripes--to decorate the Corcoran's Rotunda with a red-and-blue circus-tent motif.

"This is the second Gene Davis on these walls," the artist said. "I painted them for the biennial exhibit in 1976 and then they covered the walls again with gray paint and hung the quiet Corots in here. In a few months, they probably will paint this over with gray paint again."

Among the guests were Ken and Bonnie Feld, members of the family that owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. She wore a striking gold-spangled dress designed by the circus costumers.

"We have everything but the sawdust here," said Ken Feld.

The Felds helped add to the authenticity of the clowns with costumes and makeup for dancers and members of the clown company who performed. The table centerpieces featured huge bowls of popcorn and circus souvenirs.

Not everyone who was invited could join in the fun. Deputy Secretary of State Walter J. Stoessel sent word Wednesday that he wouldn't be able to attend. He was in the Middle East during preparations for the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai.

For Mrs. John Chester, chairman of the ball committee, the reward for a year of planning came when she and a 12-foot partner became the first couple to dance in the gallery's atrium.

"I've never danced with a man on stilts before," said Mrs. Chester, who had no difficulty doing a graceful turn under her partner's arm.