Virtually unknown in China until tonight, the Washington Ballet captivated a Chinese audience studded with some of the country's leading dancers and dance instructors. After a stiff, slow start in their premiere performance here, the American dancers surged to a strong, seemingly effortless finish.

The Chinese are not known to be enthusiastic in their applause for most performances. But tonight they paid the Washington dancers a double compliment. They applauded warmly, and at the end of the performance, with only a few exceptions, they did not rush for their buses and bicycles, as is usually the case, but lingered to applaud and watch dignitaries congratulate the dancers.

The Washington Ballet provided Peking with an energy and exuberance that are sometimes missing from the technically superb Soviet-style dancing with which the Chinese are most familiar.

The Washington dancers' powerful signature work "Fives," choreographed by Choo San Goh, won the evening's strongest applause, although its abstract, sculptured movements place it far from China's ballet tradition.

"A Night at the Ballet," a comedy, surprised and delighted the audience once they realized that the mistakes they were seeing on the stage were intentional parts of a series of comic episodes. But the comedy, too, seemed far removed from what the Chinese are used to.

"We could use more humor in our dancing," said Man Yi, a young Chinese dancer in the audience, following the performance.

Man Yi said he was impressed with the lack of a story line in all four of the pieces performed tonight. "The dancers just seem to dance for the enjoyment of the motion," he said. "In Chinese ballet, there is always a theme."

Given the purges and crackdowns of the past, art of any kind in China has been a serious, high-risk business. Some of the Chinese in the audience tonight acted almost surprised that they could laugh at the comedy of "A Night at the Ballet" as much as they did. But the children in the audience took to it almost immediately and laughed without hesitation.

One of the most distinguished members of the audience was Bai Shuxiang, once a leading ballerina. The cultural revolution of 1966-76 tore a decade out of her career. During that time, a performance such as tonight's would have been banned and a mere proposal to stage it might have brought cries of "counterrevolution" and arrests.

The avid audience of more than 1,400 paid 5 yuan ($1.80) for each ticket, a considerable price for the average Peking worker, who makes 60 to 70 yuan a month.

But some members of the audience at the Heavenly Bridge theater said that because the performance related to their work as dancers or instructors, they were reimbursed by their work units. The Washington Ballet can expect sold-out houses throughout its 18-day China tour.

The American dancers had been told that tonight's audience would include important people, some of whom would be in a position to judge their work critically. This was perhaps one reason for the nervousness apparent in the opening movement of the first piece, "Schubert Symphony," set to Schubert's Symphony No. 2 and choreographed by Choo San Goh.

Some Chinese in the audience saw much to admire in the purples, mauves and pinks of the dancers' costumes in this opening piece. But throughout the first movement, the dancers appeared stiff and slow. Once they heard their first applause and got into the second movement, however, the dancers gained strength. By the time they got to the second part of the program, when the audience was laughing, the dancers seemed comfortable and shook off all traces of self-consciousness.

Mary Day, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, said she and her colleagues had been "a little hesitant" about staging "A Night at the Ballet" because they feared the Chinese might not see the humor in it. But Chinese Embassy officials in Washington who knew the ballet well, including the now-retired ambassador Zhang Wenjin, had insisted that they take the work to China on the grounds that humor and laughter are universal.

But there were a few awkward moments at the outset. The ballet started conventionally enough, when suddenly soloist Lynn Cote was shaking a toe shoe whose ribbons had become untied. Some Chinese were momentarily shocked by this mishap, but it quickly became apparent that this was a comedy, designed to make fun of the accidents that can occur and the human frailties that are sometimes evident even in this most serious of arts.

"It's not a mistake," said someone in the audience. "It's intentional . . . It's very funny."

Before the piece was done, dancers were shoving one another around the stage in mock attempts to take lead positions and a disappointed female dancer had smashed a guitar over the head of a distracted would-be lover. The humor at this point was hard to miss.

Sometimes described as the Washington Ballet's theme song, "Fives" brought an almost immediate response from the audience. Even when barely moving in the opening moments, the 10 female dancers were so alive that the audience spontaneously applauded them.

The Washington Ballet had tough acts to follow. In March, members of a Peking audience enjoyed a performance by the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In April they gave a standing ovation to the Sydney Dance Company. And only six days ago, a Peking audience saw the famous Royal Danish Ballet perform its Peking debut.

One Chinese dance scholar commented that "the Danes were good -- what you would expect."

"But," he added at the end of tonight's performance, "the Americans were unexpectedly good. And most important for us, they were exciting."