The Kennedy Center's inaugural "A Celebration of Dance" at the Terrace Theater Monday night turned out to be a warmly festive block party for the Washington dance community.

The event also lent support to the proposition that Washington dance has an identity of its own, despite the diversity that is a natural concomitant of the city's metropolitan, multiethnic and international character.

It's a city inevitably fixated on politics, and hence inured to a continual airing of opinions, causes and ideologies. Nothing could have been a plainer reflection of how life translates into art than a dance program like this one, in which words, ideas and social contexts played such central roles.

The event was also the first installment of a new Kennedy Center series, "Washington, Front and Center!," dedicated to presenting "the finest performing artists and companies from the Greater Washington area," and embracing not just dance but all the performing arts.

Program coordinator for the kickoff dance evening was Liz Lerman, herself not only a leading Washington dancer and choreographer but also a vigorous exponent of dance as a vehicle for the expression of political, social and historical viewpoints. Aiming for a spectrum that would not only mirror the diversity of Washington dance but also exemplify both established and novice enterprises, Lerman chose six groups -- Shizumi Dance Theatre, Larry Warren and Dancers, D.C. Youth Ensemble, Zeniyaz, Deborah Riley with members of Perlo/Bloom & Company, and Sharon Wyrrick's Full Circle. The emphasis was on new work; each group presented at least one piece created this year and of these, three were premieres.

The program ran on far too long (more than three hours), putting some of the groups of the evening's latter half at a disadvantage. Choreographic quality, moreover, was palpably uneven. On the other hand, the event was pervaded with the feeling that the whole was of greater import than any individual part. Primarily, this was a show of the strength, vitality and dedication of Washington dance across the board, in the face of vast differences of level, style and approach.

That so much of the evening's work was new made for excitement, but also a high quotient of risk. Deborah Riley, for instance, a consummately skilled dancer who has been an effective choreographer in the past in tandem with partner Diane Frank, seemed to founder in her first solo attempt. Her "Steel Angel," premiered by a cast of five women including Riley, began feistily with a recorded manifesto excoriating male chauvinism. But the dance that followed, with its recurrent beefcake poses, punk costumes and abrasive, splotchy new wave music by Susan Mumford, was unclear in its polemics and uncompelling in its movement designs.

Also lacking clarity was "Transitions," a bizarre new duet by Zenaide Silva and Nia Love, who recently paired up as the Zeniyaz troupe. One of the women (it wasn't obvious which was which) appeared to be naked -- I say "appeared to be" because the stage was so dark that much of the dance was literally nebulous. It involved extreme backbends, a passage of painful seizure that may have stood for birth pangs (the garbed dancer was pregnant, a fact I was told but failed to observe), a mysterious bronze statue of uncertain gender, a baby in a stroller and a length of veil. The choreography seemed inchoate and the artists' intentions elusive at best.

The choreography for Shizumi Manale's solos "Spirits of the Earth" and "Crane's Repayment," as the Shizumi Dance Theatre offerings, was slender in substance and too dependent on illusionistic gimmickry. Her dancing, however, was so exquisitely nuanced, delicate and pliant that one gasped at its expertise.

Larry Warren's new "For Lorca" strove for the same sort of evocative profiling that distinguished his "Poems for a Poet" of last year, in tribute to Tennessee Williams. But despite the air of somber destiny aptly befitting the Spanish writer, and the sympathetic dancing by a cast of six, the choreography and its bilingual verbal excerpts failed to cohere. Like Warren, Carol Foster's D.C. Youth Ensemble seemed to falter uncharacteristically in its recent "Tribute," a spirited paean to Lorraine Hansberry that resembles a work-in-progress.

It remained for Sharon Wyrrick's Full Circle troupe, in the ensemble piece "Infinite Passions" so brilliantly premiered last June at Dance Place, to show what Washington dance can look like when everything -- the choreographer's inspiration and formal sense, the stagecraft, the seasoned rapport of the dancers -- is clicking at once. The work mixes mystery, ritual, poignant yearning and a deadpan lunatic humor into a haunting, thoroughly personal fusion.

Lerman and the Kennedy Center deserve vast credit for bring the "Celebration" to fruition; the lengthy ticket lines were but one indication of its success. Marta Istomin, Kennedy Center artistic director, announced that a sequel dance program is being planned for next Feb. 5.