"Vers la Flamme," Martha Clarke's interpretation in movement of five short stories by Anton Chekhov, feels more like a silent film than a dance or theater production. The 70-minute performance, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, is not an evening of ravishing dancing or transporting special effects. It's quiet, subdued and often comes to a complete halt. But in those moments of stillness, with a torrent of tension unleashed in a gaze, lies more potent drama than in many bigger, busier shows.

Choreographer-director Clarke set herself a huge task--translate literature into physicality, words into action. She's no stranger to huge tasks; past dance theater creations have included "Vienna: Lusthaus," presaging the Anschluss amid the gilded glory, and a depiction of Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

But "Vers la Flamme," which opens the season's "America Dancing" series, is in a different vein entirely. It is all subtlety and nuance. The set, a single room, is papered over with the sky, alluding to the characters' wishes for escape. An onstage pianist (the remarkable Christopher O'Riley) plays selections by Scriabin and an epilogue by Rachmaninoff. The notes drift softly like the snow that wafts outside a window. The atmosphere is close and dreary. The infrequent swirling embrace between two dancers or a sweeping lift is like a fresh breeze in a sickroom.

Clarke has chosen five stories to represent "impressionistically": "The Lady With the Lapdog," "Enemies," "The Darling," "The Grasshopper" and "A Nervous Breakdown." In them, Chekhov writes about the small but tragic mistakes in life, those moments of horror when one hears the trapdoor snap shut, boxing one in with one's lousy choices. The two lovers in "The Lady With the Lapdog" discover all too late how happy they are together, and yet how unsustainable such happiness is since both are married to other people. In "The Grasshopper," it is only after her own unhappy adulterous affair and the death of her husband that the main character sees how foolish she has been--if only she had realized the contentment she could have had at home.

This is fertile ground for Clarke, who has always had an eye for the dark side of life. She has left out many of Chekhov's details, and even altered small aspects of some stories. (The author doesn't paint "The Darling's" dalliance with a military man with anywhere near the erotic flair Clarke does.) Yet she astutely captures the tension in the narrative, correctly locating where Chekhov himself laid the emphasis.

What makes this production work is Clarke's expertise in storytelling. With her playful but yearning look out the window, we know that Kate Coyne, title figure of "The Darling," is a social creature, dependent on others. So of course she's going to go from one man to another, culminating in the hilarious sexual antics with the officer. (It should be noted that the program is not suitable for children. Clarke slips in a number of dirty jokes.) But how tender it is when, after he returns to his wife and leaves Coyne with his child, she finds ultimate comfort in mothering the boy. All of this is told without words, but with a clear physical ease and expressiveness.

Clarke has assembled a dream team of six seasoned actor-dancers (and a winsome young boy, Sean Dalal). George de la Pena and Alexandre Proia are both former ballet dancers; Margie Gillis is a well-traveled solo performer. Felix Blaska, Coyne and Paola Styron have all figured in several Clarke productions.

Frequent Clarke collaborator Jane Greenwood designed the costumes, sublime creations that echo the simplicity of the production while conveying all the romance of the era. Stephen Strawbridge's brilliant lighting reflected both the inner and outer worlds of the characters.

Performances continue tonight and tomorrow night.

CAPTION: George de la Pena and Paola Styron in Martha Clarke's "Vers la Flamme."