With a symphony of sparkle over the Potomac and a succession of acrobatic acts in its halls, the Kennedy Center last night marked the beginning of one of its most ambitious international festivals ever, a month-long exploration of the music, dance, theater and opera of China.

The special opening-night performance of the Festival of China, presented before a black-tie crowd in the Eisenhower Theater, was served up as an appetizer for evenings soon to come, an opportunity for leading Chinese acrobats, singers and dancers to give Washington's culture vultures a taste of some of the best in China's performing arts, both modern and traditional. The Peking Opera, China National Acrobatic Troupe and China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble were among the companies that filled the Eisenhower bill and dressed the stage with lanterns and silk and demonstrations of athleticism.

The evening was capped by a category of Chinese artistry that uses as its canvas the nighttime sky. The fireworks display -- or, as its celebrated designer, Cai Guo Qiang, prefers to call it, the "explosion event" -- set ablaze the ether above the Potomac. From boats circling the river just in front of the center, shells were launched and images illuminated, the most arresting being a tornado, propelled as if through the choreography of a hundred thousand fireflies.

Patrons filed out of the theater and onto the Kennedy Center's riverfront plazas to watch Cai's fireworks, ignited on a barge and on the boats by the renowned Grucci fireworks family. Because the display was going off 500 feet in the air -- and in the flight path of planes landing at Reagan National Airport -- the Kennedy Center had to get clearance from the Coast Guard and Federal Aviation Administration.

The exhibition did indeed achieve an earsplitting liftoff.

The festival, four years in the making, is being promoted as the most intensive and extensive celebration of Chinese culture by an arts institution in this country. Over the next month, the $5 million festival will feature 874 performers from Hong Kong and the mainland in 53 performances that range from the Peking Opera's "Female Generals of the Yang Family" to the National Ballet of China in a stage adaptation of "Raise the Red Lantern" to the Beijing People's Art Theatre's production of "Teahouse." Artists as varied as the singers of the Inner Mongolian Chorus and shadow puppeteers from the Shaanxi Folk Art Theater will be making Washington debuts. In some cases, the Kennedy Center will be the most important American exposure a particular troupe has ever had.

The festival will fill not only the halls but the hallways, too. From pop performers to folk dancers, Chinese musicians will be playing in free events on the Millennium Stage. And an outdoor balcony has been transformed into an open-air Beijing market.

Alicia Adams, the center's vice president for international programs and the festival curator, says she culled the offerings from the myriad performances she attended in nine trips to China. (The Kennedy Center is contributing $2.8 million and the Chinese government $1.7 million for the festival; the budget calls for the remaining $500,000 to be raised through ticket sales.) The aim, she said, was assembling a melange of productions that would at once reflect on China's artistic legacy and provide glimpses of contemporary expression in the new China. And in all cases, she added, "we wanted the best."

That message was what Chinese and center officials were hoping would be conveyed in the program last night. The 100-minute production, with its handkerchief jugglers, opera singers, drummers and fire spitters, was a pageant of identity and nationhood of the sort you might find in an opening ceremony for the Olympics -- which just happens to scheduled for Beijing in the summer of 2008.

The production, organized by China's Ministry of Culture and the Beijing city government, was part spectacle, part commercial. After an onstage ribbon-cutting with Chinese and Kennedy Center officials, a promotional film with familiar images of China such as the Great Wall was shown. Then came a series of short performances by Chinese musicians, dancers and acrobats. Members of the Peking Opera were on hand for an eight-minute exhibition of unison dancing and ornate costuming.

The evening was all very Cirque du Soleil, with a dash of "Riverdance" and a soupcon of "American Idol" thrown in. The featured solos included Zhou Wei on the erhu, a string instrument held upright on the player's lap; and Quo Rong singing in English and Chinese. Her rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" was the production's attempt to show how American pop culture has been absorbed on the other side of the Pacific.

The most astonishing acts were feats of grace and balance. In an interlude titled "Pagoda of Bowls and the Charm of Piling Up," women doing handstands in the extended arms of male colleagues held that position while being tossed from man to man. In "Diabolos," a cadre of young women made wooden spools dance ingeniously on ropes. The show-stopping moment, however, came as Wei Baohua and Wu Zhengdan of the Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe performed "Equilibrium in Ballet." It entailed a ballerina spinning on point. The complication? She did it on the head of her partner.

One lucky couple got a front-row seat for the "dancing boats" display at the Festival of China.Eastern stars: At left, "Time of Peace and Prosperity" performed by the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble; "Pagoda of Bowls and the Charm of Piling Up" from the China National Acrobatic Troupe, above; and the Wong Chinese Lion Dancers.