Why is it that concerts by university dance departments are often better than those of professional companies? "Refractions of a Distant Phrase," which received the first of four performances at American University's Clendenen Theater last night, was a joy. If none of the six works was earthshakingly original, each was competent and most were interesting.

John Wiatt, AU's artist-in-residence, was represented as both choreographer and composer of "Xaquilio," inspired by Mayan mythology. To an accompaniment of bongos, gourds and whistles, the six women depicted a society as noncompetitive and gentle as its movements.

Both students and faculty choreographers tackled challenges -- music by Stravinsky and Cage, difficult compositional techniques -- and, for the most part, met them. Sharon Ann Wyrrick's "Hands birds," choreographed to Dovid Yoken's original trancelike score, gently manipulated nine women in a variety of simple steps and complex patterns that managed to be both repetitive and unpredictable.

Dottie Fried gave a powerful performance in Lin Shook's "Glimpses of the Hill," a demanding solo that explored the loneliness, strength and determination of American frontierswoman Calamity Jane. "All Around My Hat," a character dance by Rpiscilla Barden to English folk songs, at turns humorous and poignant, was the delightful close to a strong program.