LUCINDA CHILDS must have loved geometry class because her choreography reveals an almost limitless appetite for shapes and symmetries.
Her dancers move not as performers on a stage but as planets through the heavens, aligning themselves in brief, inscrutable configurations.
For three decades this dynamic use of patterns and permutations has given vibrancy to Childs's otherwise monochromatic work. It finally brought her to prominence in 1976, the year she collaborated with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson on the avant-garde opera ``Einstein on the Beach.''
Yet in four of her most recent compositions, Childs trains her kaleidoscope eyes not only on mathematical abstractions but also on human drama. It is as if she has passed back through Alice's looking glass and returned to a world where feelings weigh as heavily as concepts.
The new dances were among six works presented at the Joyce Theater earlier this month. The week-long run celebrated the Lucinda Childs Dance Company's 20th anniversary. It also marked the troupe's first hometown appearance since Childs took up residence in Europe five years ago.
As before, Childs sets repetitive movements to dissonant music. While living abroad she has found a musical partner in Elisabeth Chojnacka, whose mesmerizing turns at the harpsichord figure in each of the four new dances.
She now seems more inclined to punctuate her engrossing dances with flourishes of individuality.
Nowhere does Childs confront the joys, traumas, and complexities of life more directly than in ``One and One.'' In this 28-minute piece, which premiered at the Festival D'Automne in Paris last November, she performs an uncharacteristically long and lyrical solo.
The solo begins with Childs stepping gingerly into the glare of a spotlight placed at floor level.
First her leg, then her entire body casts enormous shadows against the backdrop, on which a vertical band of darkness forms a buffer between fields of red and yellow light. Reworked with oil paints, the backdrop could pass for a mural by Mark Rothko.
Clothed in billowing black, Childs dances with her two shadows, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes spitefully.
She whirls around repeatedly with her fists clenched. Swinging her arm like a boxer, she signals anger, bewilderment, and possibly resolve.
The source of these emotions and the person or thing against which they are directed never become explicit. Nor does Childs give much indication of how her solo, which she repeats with slight variation, relates to the rest of the dance. Like her, the 10 other dancers gesture with their arms and cast tall shadows behind them. More intriguing, though, are their flattened poses and their gradual efforts to build spring and elasticity into a simple unadorned walk.
For continuity, Childs relies chiefly on the lighting, artfully conceived by Nan Hoover and Eric Cornwell, and the score, composed by Iannis Xenakis. While in Europe she has begun to indulge in the use of light and music. For a choreographer who once danced to silence, it is a remarkable departure.
With ``Impromptu,'' however, Childs may have gone too far in that regard. Compared to her earlier work, this 10-minute composition verges on the baroque. Two mirrored balls hang from the rafters, splashing tears of light across the stage and into the audience. Throughout this whimsical medley of ballet and modern dance, three couples curtsey, twirl, and race about the stage in sweeping arcs. En route they both amuse and annoy.
The more sparing ``Concerto'' harks back to earlier works like ``Available Light,'' a dance from 1983 that was included in the program. In ``Concerto,'' Childs experiments with contrasts: light and darkness, sound and silence, forward and backward. The piece begins and ends with darkly clad dancers silhouetted against a brilliant white backdrop. For nine minutes this ensemble forms various polygonal shapes, beginning with triangles and then trapezoids, and inverts them by mirroring each others' movements. It is an electrifying dance. Like ``One and One'' and ``Concerto,'' it premiered in France last November.
``Rhythm Plus'' is the fourth of the recent works. Dating from 1991, it most closely resembles ``One and One.'' Again Childs employs light as a stage prop, using beams of white light to draw windows and pathways on the floor. Again she dances a central role. And again a layer of abstraction shrouds the drama.
``Rhythm Plus'' also raises an issue that Childs began grappling with long ago. As her dancers walk, pace, and gambol about the stage, she is busy charting the frontier where conformity and originality intersect, where order and chaos overlap, where the group and the individual converge.
Life abroad seems to be instilling in Childs a renewed appreciation for human failures and triumphs. With the exception of ``Impromptu,'' her recent works have a more humane quality.
* Lucinda Childs is now working on a new dance for the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, Germany. The dance, set to John Adams's ``Chamber Symphony,'' will premiere in May. Lucinda Childs Dance Company will perform next at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in late August. lchild