A NIGHT-LIT dome evolves into a Japanese tapestry, with star-crossed lovers unable to reach across a chasm as deep as the sky above; their bodies amble softly towards each other, curl into sleep as the days pass; eventually they merge into a single tree, a petal symbolizing their love.

Tiny spaceships zooming into battle are suddenly transformed into Darth Vader masks; a Picasso-ish nude stretches out and then folds up again; bumblebees fly agitatedly across the skyscape, dipping into giant celestial flowers.

All these shapes are created by laser animation, a new art/science hybrid developed by Audio Visual Imagineering, a small Springfield-based company specializing in laser programs, what laser technician Joanne McCullough calls "lumia, the kinetic art of painting with light." Founded 3 1/2 years ago, AVI has spent most of its short life on the road in planetariums from Miami to Toronto; it is in its first Washington area residency at the Howard Owens Science Center in Lanham, where two shows, "Laserdrive" and "Visual Music," will play in repertory through July.

There are currently three laser companies touring the country, but AVI is the only one involved with laser animation, cartoons drawn with computers and laser beams. "We are the first to use it in shows," says McCullough, cofounder of AVI with her husband Doug, a veteran of Washington's psychedelic light shows during the '60s. They sold their house to start the company. The animation program was actually developed by robotics engineer David Bowles and built by AVI's technical director, Ward Davis, a former stage lighting director for Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Santana and Blue Oyster Cult.

The essential laser setup is standard: an intense, pencil-thin beam of white light splits into four primary beams (red, yellow, green and blue) which pass through optical scanners, an array of prisms, filters and motor-shafted mirrors that reflect the laser lights on the screen, or dome. The laser's classic spiraling geometric imagery is the result of "persistence of vision," a natural physical limitation of a viewer's eyes in which the speedy dots of color "give the illusion of a pattern," according to McCullough. "All you really see at one time is a single dot" for each color.

AVI powers its programs through a massive control board and a 2,000-milliwatt Krypton-Argon laser (the original unit, somewhat improvised, was affectionately called Godzilla, "our first monster"). McCullough is quick to point out that AVI uses the most advanced laser projection technology in the world. "Each beam can be controlled individually with joy sticks and all kinds of controls and special effects wheels, so we can do live shows; they're different all the time," she says.

AVI creates color harmonics through its Acousto-optic modulator, which allows the shifting of color hues and the creation of stunning blends and washes; the device was developed with Floyd Rollefstad of St. Paul, Minn. Color choreography utilizes slides and transparencies, a carry-over from the light-show days.

There are several kinds of laser shows, the most common--and popular--being the loud, pulsating rock soundtrack (heavy on Alan Parsons and Pink Floyd) accompanied by brilliant, flashy laser effects. Sometimes, there's even a vague theme, as in the "Laserdrive" show's "trip through outer space and into another dimension." "Visual Music" is a bit different, not only because of the animation, but because AVI has structured it in a "Fantasia" mold. "We wanted to have many different things within a program," McCullough explains, "and one of the things we wanted was an original story, which has never been done in laser shows." That segment is "The Fifth Petal," a Japanese myth retold by science-writer and folk singer Jonathan Eberhart and narrated by Richard Bauer of Arena Stage. It's quite magical and a welcome departure from rock-heavy standard laser shows.

The Owens Center, located at 9601 Greenbelt Rd. in Lanham, is a little-known science center originally open only to Prince George's County public school students; because of recent budget cutbacks, staging AVI's laser shows has become a source of much-needed income. Its planetarium is 55 feet in diameter, with a Minolta star projector and a Crown sound system with DBX noise reduction. "You're totally surrounded with the laser light and special effects," says McCullough. "The sound is all around you; it's the perfect environment."

Show times for "Visual Music" are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. "Laserdrive" shows are at 9 and 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with weekend matinees at 3:30 p.m. For more information, call 577-8780.