The Comtemporary Dance Theater, hailing from Cincinnati, paid a return visit to the Dance Project this past weekend with a program emphasizing dramatic suggestion and atmosphere. With a couple of notable exceptions, however, the theatrical content seemed undermined by its feeble choreographic setting.

The characters in "Epitaphs" (drawn from "Spoon River Anthology") and "A Dance of Sisters," both by the troupe's director, Jefferson James, were too amorphously defined to exert much impact, and the dance language -- a bland adaptation of Graham technique -- seemed depressingly shopworn for a company that dubs itself "contemporary." Rachel Lampert's "Bloody Mary Sunday" was simply trivial, in both aim and means.

The balance of the program was a distinct improvement. "The Big Show," a splendid 1973 solo by Washington's Jan Van Dyke, achieves a very similar effect to Eliot Feld's more recent "Half Time," but with greater economy. To the intermittent strains of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," a single dancer struts, kicks, leaps and poses, summing up in a few pithy images the whole American love affair with pageantry, cheerleading and athletic bravado. The performance by James, however, didn't have quite the cheeky flair Van Dyke herself brings to the piece.

The most rewarding marriage of choreography and performance arrived in the program finale, a taut, suspenseful account by all six dancers of Gladys Bailin's "Come Out," to a verbal tape score by Steve Reich from the composer's "phase music" period. The slow motion orbitings and gyrations of the dancers managed to evoke both outer space and inner torment.