A spectral ballerina, crippled and aged, attempts flight but is pathetically earthbound. Her hands flutter on her back in desperate mimicry of the wings of a sylph. As in a nightmare, she is missing the top of her costume, and she hugs her bare breasts with her gnarled hands.

Martha Clarke's image of the useless, deformed dancer who cannot forget her former glories is the subject of "Nocturne," presented last night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater in the debut program of the dance company Crowsnest. While macabre, "Nocturne" is injected with touches of Myra Kinch-like parodic lunacy. It is haunting in its dual nature: simultaneously touching and humorous.

This formula of melancholia dementia forms the basis of the Crowsnest repertory. "It Don't Mean a Thing," danced to a background of Duke Ellington tunes, is alternately a scathing commentary upon casual relationships and a horrific view of sexual power. "Tarleton Resurrection" tells of two rustics whose rivalry is belied by trust and affection.

Founded in 1978 by Martha Clarke, formerly of Pilobolus, Crowsnest combines the Pilobolus signature of the gymnastic intertwining of bodies with dramatic images. These concerns link Crowsnest with the pre-formalist choreographers of modern dance who sought for emotion in movement. Felix Blaska, formerly of Roland Petit's ballet, and Robert Barnett, also with Pilobolus, complete the trio.

The program was completed by "Haiku," a series of vignettes suggesting a profound reverence for the "eternal verities," and by "The Garden of Villandry," a Victorian me'nage a trois that contains some of the suspense and clever structural intertwinings of Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden."

Crowsnest is certainly one of the not-to-be-missed groups. The program will be repeated tonight at 7:30.