David Parsons' "Walk This Way," given its world premiere by American Ballet Theatre at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, is that welcome rarity -- a new ballet that's also an immediate, resounding hit with the public.

Even rarer, it's also an artistic gem. It pleases the crowd, but it's far more than a crowd pleaser. In its freshness, wit and inventiveness, it marks the arrival on the major ballet scene of a choreographic talent obviously r eady for a future.

ABT, now and in the past, has been exceptionally generous to Washington in the matter of premieres. This season, Karole Armitage's "The Mollino Room" was introduced here, and the company has brought us every other new piece on its toiur repertory with with the exception of David Gordon's "Murder." "Walk This Way" was a sort of afterthought. It wasn't on the original Kennedy Center schedule; the premiere was to have taken place later in New York, at the Met.

Lucky us. The piece is only a 12-minute duet, but what a delicious dozen minutes they are. The dancers are ABT principals Martine van Hamel and Clark Tippet, and it's impossible to separate the premiere's success from their brilliant contributions in the way of dancing and characterization.

Parsons couldn't be present to share the kudos because he's a leading dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which is in the midst of its own New York season. With Taylor since 1978, the young midwesterner (he's 26) is a relative newcomer to choreography. "Walk this Way" is his first work for ABT.

Despite its originality, the piece shows its indebtedness to Taylor in at least three ways. One is the choice of movement material, much of which consists of variants on walking and running. A second is the barbed sense of humor, another Taylor trademark. And a third is the ballet's theme -- underneath the most prim and civilized of exteriors, we're all of us madly in search of love.

Judy Wirkula's beguiling, deliberately uptight costumes have a Victorian look. Van Hamel, her hair swept up, wears a long white dress with high collar and a slight bustle; Tippet's white outfit smacks of formality -- fluffy bow tie, and a suggestion of waist coat and vest. After a portentous introduction (the music is excerpted from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2, the "Little Russian") we watch as the two of them enter and exit repeatedly, crossing paths but shielding their faces from one another or circling back to back. Though they're both obviously seeking romance, they constantly miss connection, depite their frantically accelerating quest.

The only unfortunate thing aboput "Walk This Way" is that there are no further chances this season to see it here. Even so, it wouldn't be fair to those who'll see it in coming visits to spoil its many surprises. Suffice it to say that the piece is crammed with hilarious gambits, such as the way van Hamel and Tippet finally meet. Once they do, they scrutinize each other warily. Then suspicion gives way to exaggerated courtesy. Gradually, the walls between them come tumbling down, and fencing turns to pursuit -- at one point, Parsons throws in an extrermely funny touch to show exactly what's on their minds (as well as ours). In the end, the relationship is cemented, so to speak -- again quite amusingly.

It's amazing how many novel twists Parsons is able to give to this standard framework, and how contemporary in flavor they are despite the "period" surface. Also remarkable is Parsons' skill in using symphonic music for such unsymphonic purposes, as well as in generating humor purely by means of movement. The piece leaves questions in its wake: How durable will it prove? Can Parsons sustain longer structures, of other moods? But the questions wouldn't be worth posing if "Walk This Way" weren't so splendidly promising.

Also on the program were "Swan Lake, Act II," even more spellbindingly led by Bonnie Moore and Mikhail Baryshinikov than before; "Dim Lustre," substituted for "Francesca da Rimini" due to Cynthia Gregory's ailing muscle; and "Theme and Variations."