There was something extremely touching about seeing the Central Ballet of China on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House last night. This something, however, had little to do with the manner or content of the performance. It was, rather, the feeling of hands across the sea -- of peoples divided by language, culture, politics and geography, nevertheless joyfully united in an attempt to share each other's way of being.

All the more amazing that the basis of this communication should have been an art form -- classical ballet -- so distinctively western in origin and style. That the Chinese, isolated so long from its traditions, should even want to adopt the form seems an immense compliment to their openness of spirit. That they should have come so far along the road to its mastery, given the complex of obstacles they faced, is little short of miraculous.

Last night the company presented the first of two programs to be staged here in the course of the week's visit. The Washington stop on the Central Ballet's first tour of the United States is sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society and made possible with the help of a grant from the Pacific Telesis Foundation. The troupe that has made the journey from its home city of Peking numbers 48 dancers, plus some score of support personnel -- that's about a third the size of the full company.

The achievement of the Central Ballet has to be seen against the background of its history. Western-style ballet in China dates from the mid-'50s, when a contingent of Soviet artists, including the distinguished ballet master Pyotr Gusev, arrived to help establish a school, and by 1959, a company. They were aided in this enterprise by, among others, Mme. Dai Ailian (now artistic adviser to the Central Ballet), who had studied dance in London with such masters as Anton Dolin and Kurt Jooss. The development of indigenous Chinese ballet, however, was stalled for a decade by the anti-western Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. Hence the company we see now has taken shape only within the past 10 years, abetted by a new influx of visiting choreographers and teachers from abroad, including Gusev, Dolin, Houston's Ben Stevenson, Lycette Darsonval from Paris, and Rudolf Nureyev.

The imprint of the Russians is the clearest infuence, understandably, on both the dancing and the native choreography of the Central Ballet. It was immediately apparent in the opening work, "The New Year's Sacrifice, Act II," choreographed by the troupe's present artistic director, Jiang Zuhui, a 51-year-old former dancer who studied in Moscow for five years.

The story of the ballet -- about a young woman forced into an unwanted marriage, but nevertheless won over by her gentle groom-to-be -- is Chinese, and so are the charming sets and costumes. There are Chinese flavorings, too, in the musical score by Liu Tingyu, and in parts of the dancing obviously derived from folk traditions (such as a woman's ensemble, not on point, with swirling fans and kerchiefs). Everything else is Russian in look and feeling -- the men's barrel turns, touch-toe jumps and kazatskis, for example. The music opens with a tune that sounds like "Scheherazade," and the unabashed melodrama of the score evokes the Bolshoi warhorses of the '60s. The choreography for the principals -- Guo Peihui as the bride, and Wang Caijun as the farmer groom, last night -- is Russian in its grandiloquent gestural rhetoric, as well as in its flamboyant lifts and spins.

These same traits were manifest also in Li Chengxiang's "The Demon and the Mermaid" duet, eloquently performed by Zhang Dandan as the mermaid and Ou Lu as the preying gargoyle. In both these works, the dancers exhibited remarkable skills and deportment, but limitations as well. They have a wonderful command of positions and steps, which is why they look so beautiful in still photos. What's largely missing is a sense of musical and expressive flow. The choreography likewise seems to move frame-by-frame, only sporadically attaining the continuity that makes dancing feel organic, rather than mechanical.

The second half of the program was devoted to western choreography, revealing further strengths and shortcomings. Dolin's "Variations for Four," as danced by Zhao Minhua, Wang Caijun, Li Song and Zhang Weigang, demonstrated that the men of the company, by and large, are more advanced technically than the women, to the point where they can dispatch exceedingly difficult series of virtuosic maneuvers -- leg beats, multiple pirouettes, traveling jumps, aerial turns and splits -- with magnificent precision and bravado.

Even the best of the males, however, can't project -- can't sell what they're doing -- to the degree of their western counterparts. There's no surprise in this -- it's taken the westerners centuries to perfect this kind of theatrical salesmanship. It's astonishing enough that the Chinese have conquered so much of the technique in so short a time.

"Swan Lake, Act II" -- in a version by Gusev, with some unconventional touches (e.g., no evil magician) but otherwise differing in relatively minor details from more familiar stagings -- again seemed more admirable in its technical felicities than as an artistic whole. The dancing of the corps de ballet was meticulously correct, and Zhang Weiqiang made a noble-looking, sympathetic Siegfried (he has no solo in this version). As Odette, Tang Min displayed lovely placement and dancing that in general reflected the sophisticated level of her training. It was, all the same, a rather cool, wan, curiously neutral portrayal, barely hinting at the tragic implications of the role. Like the Central Ballet as a whole, it has come far, but has plainly much further to go. If one imagines Americans trying to reproduce, say, Peking-style opera, one can grasp the vastness of the gulf the Chinese have been trying to bridge.

The company introduces a second program tonight, and repeats the first one during the weekend performances; both programs will have major changes of cast during the run.