One of the very nice things about Cathy Paine's dances is the playful way in which she embarks on explorations. No portents of "significance" prepare the audience for her adventures in the human experience. In most instances it is only when Paine wraps up a piece with a lilting cadence or wry flourish that viewers find themselves wiser not just about bodies in motion but about the world in which all lives move.

Certainly, the two older works presented by the Cathy Paine and Friends Company at the Dance Place this weekend were invitations to observe and then to muse. In "Bedtime Story," Beth Spicer is a modern woman in pajamas who prepares to go to sleep with an abundance of wake-up vim. She exercises, she dances and, when she picks up a book to read herself into slumber, Ellen Gray Denker appears as the "princess" whose story has filtered from the pages into Spicer's dreams.

The choreography for Denker is as smooth as her silky gown, and the relationship of her role to Spicer's quicksilver steps matches the contrasts in the music, a classical concerto by Johann Samuel Schroeter. The question beyond the scope of this score that Paine asks--and it is an old one--is: which of the women in "Bedtime Story" is the dreamer? Her pragmatic answer seems to be: sometimes the one, sometimes the other.

"Rain," a 1980 work, as was "Bedtime Story," begins with the dancers executing a slow, simple movement pattern. Not an iota of characterization or mimetic action is required. However, the piece ends with a passage so steeped in the mood of a drizzly day and the urban situation that spectators are surprised to discover choreography that nearly matches that of the "pure" opening pattern. In this equation, is Paine comparing dancers and people in the street? I suspect she is celebrating the human ability to split form and content.

The program's premiere piece, "The Gathering," is technically ingenious. Between the opening tableau of 11 dancers frozen in mid-step and silhouetted against a yellow curtain and its finale for two chorus lines that cross repeatedly, Paine creates a kaleidoscope of solos, duets, double duets and other combinations. At first, none of the dancers do the same thing at the same time, yet they have a common repertory of motions. Their movement vocabulary is culled from diverse sources, but has been made consistent by being treated in skewed ways--as when a dropped shoulder gives an unexpected accent to a standard acrobatic stance or an oblique angle gives a fresh direction to a routine dance step.

In "The Gathering," Paine doesn't ignore Steve Bloom's music (which bears the complementary title "With Friends"), nor does she seem overly eager to amplify either its impressionistic or extroverted jazzy halves. To all appearances there is no sign of a real gathering and there are no obvious friends. Technical concerns predominate--so far. However, the work is only half finished and audiences will have to wait until May to see if it will be turned into something playfully thoughtful or remain a diabolical machine.

The strong company also included Jeff Bliss, Martha Brim, Deb Caplowe, Robin Cooper, Betsy Eagan, Katherine Fowle, Geoffrey Harrison, Mark Lacatena, Cindy Peterson, and Ed Scherer. Mike Manring, Amy Ziff and Bloom were the musicians.