StewartCarrera's excellent recital of Bharata Natyam -- the classical dance form of southern India -- at American University's McDonald Recital Hall last night raised age-old questions about artistic universality.

To what extent can dance transcend cultural barriers? Can a westerner appreciate nonwestern idioms merely on the basis of willingness, or is there a point beyond which the guidance of experts becomes indispensable?

Carrera's program provided both affirmative and negative answers.

It doesn't take specialized knowledge to determine that this young, handsome Trinidad-born performer -- a Washington resident for 13 years and a deeply committed student of Indian dance for the last eight -- is a virtuoso. The sinewy power, agility, stamina, precision and control he displays are self-validating. Similarly, Carrera's earnestness and animal magnetism are qualities that would be perceived spontaneously by anyone anywhere.

It's also the case that the ancient art of Bharata Natyam, older than the West's classical ballet and a far more rigorously complex system of codes, symbols and conventions, announces its own significance. Watching Carrera pose and move; seeing the nuances of expression in brows, eyes, cheeks and mouth; the meticulously calibrated tilts of head, neck, arms, wrists and finger joints, not to mention torso and legs; the sharpshooter bursts of heel and sole stampings; the pantherine jumps and spins, and all this to a music equally vigorous and intricate -- the whole matrix of imagery, sound and movement bespeaks a dance-mime language of potentially infinite eloquence.

But knowing the power a language may have and actually comprehending statements made in it are not the same. Despite Carrera's own gracious attempts at verbal explanation, as well as some help from the printed program, much of the dancing remained expressively opaque to these inexpert western eyes.

Leave aside such matters as that the same deity is referred to in one context as Nataraja and another as Shiva, without noting that they are identical ("Nataraja" signifying "Lord of the Dance"), or the use of terms like "raga" (meaning melodic formula) and "talam" (rhythmic species) in the absence of definitions. The real problem concerns deeper distinctions, such as those between narrative and "pure" dance sequences, which one hears described (by Carrera or in the program notes) but cannot oneself recognize in the performance.

There does come a point at which communication breaks down, when insufficient familiarity with a complex choreographic tradition and syntax exacts a toll. Perhaps what's required with an art as subtle and sophisticated as Bharata Natyam is some sort of voice-over, simultaneous commentary, such as the ones Faubion Bowers so effectively furnished with appearances here of Japan's Grand Kabuki Theater. In the meantime, many of us must content ourselves with the half a loaf we can glean from a performance like Carrera's -- wonderfully tasty, but not nearly as nourishing as it might be under other circumstances.