John Jasperse and Mary Armentrout are young dancer-choreographers from New York who presented a joint program at the Dance Place this past weekend. They appeared to know what they were doing, but they didn't seem particularly eager to let anyone else in on the secret.

Jasperse, who has spent time in Washington studying dance and choreographing and also makes music and films, and Armentrout, who's been performing solo choreography since 1978, have had more than one teacher in common, including Kei Takei. Takei's influence is strong in both their works, and the two have also absorbed traits from a number of other post-Judson sources, like the contact-improvisation school and multimedia master Meredith Monk. It can be said in their favor that they are at least working with contemporary materials and ideas, mostly of their own invention, rather than trying to spin off from some moribund modern dance tradition, as is the case with so many other novices.

The trouble is, they haven't yet learned the difference between choreography and cryptography. The program consisted of four pieces--a duet and a solo by each of the pair--all in the general mode of meta-theater, with occasional use of props like strung rope or a hope chest full of domestic clutter, as well as silent films, sound collages and bits of recorded conversation. The movement abounded in enigmatic gesture--slapping the floor, hands clutching shoulders or twisting heads, a frantic tearing of paper. The prevailing atmosphere was one of frayed nightmare. But none of the clues to the choreographers' intentions led anywhere, or added up to any decipherable purpose.

Effective dance theater often draws much of its strength from the suggestive power of ambiguity, but even the most surreal or chaotic opus must have a degree of formal or expressive coherence if it is to communicate as an artistic statement. Jasperse and Armentrout may be heading in this direction, but as for this program, no light could be glimpsed at the end of the tunnel.