At first, as the makeshift "barge" rocked up the Potomac past the last wave of evening traffic, only a handful of onlookers, stunned by the sultry air, waved feebly at the artists of the Grand Kabuki troupe.

But as the curtain of sunlight dropped, and the keening bamboo flute and peremptory drums became audible over the fading rush hour, a woman at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial steps began to semaphore both arms over the head. Walking behind the boat, she waved frantically and finally began clapping furiously. And cheering, the kimonoed actors, perched under the banners on the prow, began clapping back to their shoreside audience.

Last night's river procession, which carried some three dozen members of the Grand Kabuki Company from below Memorial Bridge to the dock at Thompson Boat Center, marked the tentative Americanization of a centuries-old tradition.

"In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Kabuki season opened, the company would arrive by boat up the river into Osaka and along the canals of Tokyo," said Peter Grilli, head of the New York-based Japan Society and temporary oddsbody to the troupe, which launches a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center tonight.

"All the people would come down to the dock, and they'd parade to the theater. But this is the first time it's been done outside Japan. When they first saw the Kennedy Center and the river below the terrace, they said, 'Man, we gotta try it!' "

So in a haze of heat that made fans more essential than accessory, some of the greatest names of that ancient art boarded The Spirit of '76 -- a name that suddenly seemed as young and raw as the imitation classical temples of Arlington Cemetery and Lincoln Memorial it passed.

"Spirit" is the shortest launch in the Washington Boat Lines collection, chosen so that the 10-foot Kabuki banners would slip under the 14th Street Bridge. Preceded by a fireboat, which shot great swan wings of water into the air, and trailed by a mini-flotilla of private yachts, it acquired a makeshift festivity that seemed contagious. As the actors marched from the dock to the stage door of the Kennedy Center, they attracted a hodgepodge vanguard of joggers, young Oriental women clamoring for a glimpse of sex symbol Kataoka Takao, and older Japanese-American citizens, a few in kimonos, ducking their heads to the revered Danjuro XII.

"Hey, Mom, can we get tickets?" yelled teen-aged Lauren Leader. "At least since I've ruined my shoes," she said with a grimace, looking down at a mud-blacked sneaker.

"I think it's wonderful," said Alice Schrader of Washington, who was clapping patiently as the procession straggled by. "I have tickets . . . but I'm new to all this. When I tell you I'm going to see Liberace next week, you'll know it!"

In an era when Richard Chamberlain costars with Toshiro Mifune, and Japanese fashion design is haute to trot, "East meets West" may have lost some of its mystery, but it's gained a sense of humor. For instance:

The entire scene was an eerie rerun of MTV, thanks to Culture Club's having staged "Karma Chameleon" on a Mississippi side-wheeler. And Peter Grilli, unconsciously echoing the video Boy George, had to keep backing up to members of the troupe to have his obi tightened. "This is kind of scary," he said, tugging the crossed-over lapels of his borrowed yukata. "I've never been outside in drag before."

Eighty-five-year-old Kiyomoto Shizutayu, a diminutive singer who is one of Japan's National Living Treasures, was offered a folding chair on the dock as he waited to board the Kabuki "barge." Nodding shortly, he flipped out the back of his formal black montsuki like a concert pianist settling his tails, and lowered himself in the spread-kneed posture of his profession. He then proceeded to finish his drink: a cup of "new" Coke.

Even in a city as stuffed with symbols as Washington, some instances of icono-clash are truly theatrical. While the boat drifted toward the Kennedy Center terrace, where a crowd of precurtain theatergoers was taking the evening air, a familiar shadow passed over the water. As the boat came up to the Watergate, and the remnant of a feudal past came face to face with the political landmark of the '70s, another cultural touchstone paused over the horizon: the Goodyear Blimp, the '80s eye in the sky.