WASHINGTON IS constantly referred to as an international center, but for the next few days it will also become a cultural mecca for performing artists and audiences alike.

The long-awaited, incredibly ambitious Festival of Indonesia officially opens its 18-month run with three back-to-back events of exceptional interest for all those who thrill to the mystery, rigor and glitter of the world's largest archipelago.

Sunday evening's gala concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall includes performances by the Children of Bali, a group of young dancers and musicians ages 10 to 14 trained in the mesmerizing dance called legong, the fierce warrior dance baris and the percussive arts of the gamelan orchestra; Sumatran "body music" created by 11 men who combine complex, synchronized movements with the sounds of Islamic chanting, stamping and hands striking flesh; and the delicate court dances of Java.

The Balinese child dancers will appear in costume briefly on Saturday at the Capital Children's Museum to present the museum with Indonesian puppets and meet American children. The ceremony will be held at 4 outside the museum at 800 Third St. NE.

Monday night, the art of West Javanese Puppet Theatre takes over the intimate confines of the University of Maryland's Tawes Recital Hall. Accompanied by a full gamelan, master puppeteer Iden Sudarsana brings to life a host of elaborately carved, painted and costumed characters who figure in the tragic Hindu epic "Ramayana." The evening commences with a pre-performance seminar on puppet theater, and ends with an offering of authentic Indonesian cuisine.

Tuesday evening in Baird Auditorium, the traditional and contemporary arts of Sunda -- one of West Java's most lively cultural centers -- are celebrated in a program featuring the vibrant drumming of Kendang Rampak, the popular new music and dance style known as Jaiponong, and another look at the art of puppetry.

The North Indian classical dance style of kathak will be performed by the India Classical Dance Society this Friday and Saturday at Duke Ellington Theater. "Megh Dut," a ballet based on a long, 4th-century love poem, tells the story of two young lovers searching for each other after being separated by a curse. The tale is rendered through a mixture of dramatic poses, intricate gestures, stop and start rhythms and elaborate masks and costumes.

Oslo's Bresee Danskompani opens the Washington Performing Arts Society's 25th-anniversary season with an international flourish, appearing Tuesday and Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. Founded two years ago by American modern dance choreographer Kathryn Bresee, the troupe will present four dances, several of them abstract, others dealing with such subjects as epilepsy and women's relationship to one another. The music ranges from Georges Bizet and Philip Glass to that of contemporary Norwegian composers John Persen and Olav Anton Thommesen. And on a local note, still-life artist Rebecca Cross of Washington has designed the sets and costumes for two of Bresee's works.


Sunday at 8. Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 467-4600.


Monday at 8. (Pre-performance seminar at 6:30). Tawes Recital Hall, University of Maryland, College Park. 403-4240.


Tuesday at 7:30. Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History. 10th and Constitution NW. Call 357-3030.


Friday and Saturday at 8. Duke Ellington Performing Arts Theater, 35th and R streets NW. 847-9358.


Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30. Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. 393-3600 or 467-4600.