It was the elegance, the grandeur and the legerdemain of the circus that Cathy Paine chose as the subject for the last work she will premiere here before moving to Los Angeles this summer. Indeed, the work of Paine, who has long been a mainstay of modern dance in Washington as teacher, choreographer and performer, has characteristically dealt with refinement and restraint. And "Short Circus" certainly ranks as one of her most successful works -- light, joyous and accessible.

Ignoring the tawdry and sideshow aspects of the circus, Paine choreographed genteel dances to concertos of Tomaso Albinoni for tumblers, big cats, a snake charmer, a tightrope walker and clowns. Paine showed herself clearly in command of her material in her fine theatrical sense of stylization as the performers worked from suggestion rather than literal pantomime.

These "acts" were bridged by promenades for the entire cast to traditional circus organ music. This use of the cast as a shifting chorus of extras and props was inspired. Serving at times as audience, as human tightrope and as straight men for the clowns, the 12 performers suggested an entire tentful.

The performances were also superb. Especially effective were Linda Gottfried as a sensuous and mesmerizing snake charmer and Ben Watts as the noble tamer of the big cats whose bravura exhibitionism and feline presence competed with that of his charges.

The program will be repeated at 8:30 tonight and 5 p.m. Sunday.