Mitchell Rose, who returned to the Washington Project for the Arts last night with partner Martha Bowers and their "Primal Oom Pah-Pah" program, may be inaugurating a new category of dance artist -- the dance clown.

There's a difference between dances that are humorous by virtue of sight gags, satirical mimicry or visual punning, and dancing that is funny because the movement itself is comical. Rose is a master of both, but he's a near-genius at the latter, which is by far and rarer of the two approaches. But there's nothing in his work of the coyness or flippancy that so often passes for wit on stage these days. His clowning is in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton and Tati -- funny and sad, and more than the sum of both.

There's also a marvelous subversive side to his imagination -- a mordant edge to the surprise he springs on us that suggests lurking menace or derangement. In one of his best inspirations, "L'Enfant Terrible," he first looks sawed-off midway: he's on his knees, in short pants, but the knees are encased in sneakers, and he waddles side to side on them with a pretend-cherubic smile, in time to Schubert's "Marche Militaire." He plays with a few toys, and then, at a pause in the music, flips open a switch-blade knife his hand's been concealing.

As a dance-clown, Rose is no less adept on the other side of the hyphen -- his choreography and dancing are as individual and structurally arresting as they are amusing.

Most of the program repeated the one last April, but the attractively dour-faced Bowers, a perfect match for Rose, presented two inventive, gently mirthful works of her own this time -- "Gleanings of Natural History" and "Ant." Here's hoping this artful pair of zanies will be back soon.