What an oddball mixture of strangeness and surpassing physical skill is Crowsnest, the offbeat dance-theater troupe that returned for a second Dance America series appearance at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night. Being weird is what the group apparently likes best, as though it were celebrating an eternal Halloween. Yet the madness is informed by methods of the utmost precision and refinement.

The strangeness takes many forms--sometimes it's everyday experience from a skewed angle, sometimes it's the shock of the unexpected or the off-key and sometimes it's downright creepy. But the skill of presentation is unremitting, and brilliant enough to be riveting in its own right.

Crowsnest was founded in 1979 by Martha Clarke and Robert Barnett, who were themselves founding members of the Pilobolus Dance Theater--those familiar with the latter's gymnastic facility, theatrical panache and bizarre proclivities will recognize many similarities in the Crowsnest repertoire. Clarke and Barnett have since been joined by Russian-born, French-trained Felix Blaska, and more recently by Marie Fourcart, who worked with Blaska's own troupe in Paris.

The four--who often choreograph collectively--are quite distinct in personality, yet they are plainly soul mates when it comes to artistic imagination and taste. Through the six works of last night's program ran a number of common threads: a penchant for gothic or nightmarish atmosphere; pungent wit, usually of the curdled or dark variety; body shapes that verge on the abnormal or malformed, and slow motion, often in half light, that seems to arrest movement to the point where it can be observed, as it were, frame-by-frame, and at the same time powerfully reinforces the dreamlike aspects of the troupe's creations.

"Gibbous Moon," the evening's newest work (this was its American premiere), was at once the strangest, the most obscure and, paradoxically, the least adventurous of the lot. In the fog-shrouded opening, Fourcaut, in a long white peasant gown, is supporting Clarke, who's wearing a red and blue grenadier's jacket, while in the background Barnett, in a striped blazer over a nightshirt, and Blaska, in Egyptian attire topped by a tasselled fez, enter in a dead march. The piece is a crazy quilt of suggested rivalries, debauchery and shifting allegiances--it never becomes clearer than that, though it's twice too long for its material. It seemed the least venturesome because it had so many echoes of the 1975 Pilobolus signature piece, "Untitled"; there was no music credit, but the score sounded like a twin to the one Robert Dennis provided for "Untitled."

"Fallen Angel" and "Nocturne" were two solos devised by Clarke (the first danced by Fourcaut, the second by the choreographer) much in the same vein. "Nocturne" depicts an arthritic crone in a tutu, with bared chest and feet, longingly and painfully reliving days of balletic glory. In "Fallen Angel," the dancer wears a full, formal pink skirt, but her head is covered by a beaked hood--a woebegone creature who waddles, shivers and crawls, groping for vestiges of former grace. "Haiku," a series of terse, moonlit vignettes for three dancers; "Tarleton Resurrection," with Blaska and Barnett as medieval varlets who vacillate from boon companionship to blunt hostility; and "The Garden of Villandry," a me'nage-a -trois in an Edwardian setting, displayed further facets of Crownest's beguiling eccentricity.

One can come away with doubts--Crowsnest sometimes hovers perplexingly between histrionics and drama, mimicry and characterization, concept and sensationalism. All the same, it's an undeniably provocative and rewarding experience. The program repeats tonight and Saturday.