It was astute of a new dance company to ask a choreographer of yore to work again. Ethel Butler, one of the founders of modern dance in Washington, has not been represented on programs here, or elsewhere, in nearly a decade. Last night, the Center Dance Ensemble premiered her "Splintered Pulse," and proved that Butler still has something fresh to say.

The first images, though, allude to the past. A chorus of dancers invokes a world of sex and sacrifice in rites inherited from Martha Graham's "Greek" period. As the spasms of their limbs and sustained tensions of their torsos subside, a couple on a higher platform awakens. At first, this pair seems merely privileged, their intimacy allowing a satisfaction denied to the group. As the duet continues, however, it establishes a cooler, almost lyrically acrobatic, alien tone.

A choreographic dialogue develops between chorus and couple, and it is in the course of this dialectic that Butler, quite consciously, destroys the worlds of both the celebrants and the lovers. "Splintered Pulse" ends in pessimism, in fragmented energy, in the shattering of the "old" modern dance beliefs.

If this ending is not as strong as the beginning, it may be a problem inherent in showing a negative image or it may be that Butler, at heart, isn't convinced of her own disbelief. But working in close collaboration with composer Ronald Tymus, she has made a dance that contrasted well with the others on the program that gave the Center ensemble some moments of choreography like granite.

Sliding and swarming bodies were used by Geoff Harrison in "First Light," to match Philip Glass's recurring arpeggios for the piano. Harrison's choreography is more varied than Glass' music and does not wear out its welcome, but just a few moments less would have made it terse.

Philip Grosser's "3 Dances" is a wonderful solo of flat body planes, angular joints and spiky rhythms that shows how successfully Stravinsky music can be choreographed from a non-Balanchine point of view. As Grosser's soloist, the loin-clothed Harrison was reminiscent of Ted Shawn and his cult of the body beautiful, but in richer movement than Shawn would have devised. The piece, and Harrison's performance, deserved the challenge of a live violinist instead of taped music.

"The Seasons" by Frances Smith Cohen, the uneven concluding work, had a sculpturally impressive, autumnal duet for Janet Beller and Glenn Greene as well as a delicate perpetuum mobile for tiny, vivacious Susanna Poulos. The group sections, though, seemed contrived.

The program is being repeated tomorrow and Sunday in Rockville at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.