An entire evening of completely improvised dance is a scary thought. Poorly done, the results will rival drying paint and colliding trains for tedium and chaos. But Friday evening's opening performance for the New Dance Improvisation Festival '99, at Dance Place, was a state-of-the-art demonstration of the form's potential.

Dancers K.J. Holmes, Ray Chung, Cathy Paine and Andrew de L. Harwood began with consecutive solos, seemingly volunteering them as a Quaker might bear witness at a Friends meeting. An ordered series of duets, trios and quartets flowed smoothly from this informal overture. Contact improvisation--that fascinating technical glue of modern improv--informed almost every interaction. But speech, song, mime and inventions of all kinds were fair game. The restrained and responsive lighting design by Catherine Eliot was also created on the fly.

Master of ceremonies Julyen Norman helped to create a uniquely relaxed and appropriate mood. Intermission was not a break but a segue--through which two of the dancers continued to work. Norman's later appearance to recite a little memory poem about paint marks he once left on a dance floor signaled an elegant closure.

Months of choreography and rehearsal often go into performances of far less substance, polish and conviction. This can only be due to an underlying integrity in the forms being developed and mastered by these dancers. Festival director Paine notes that they particularly admire jazz musicians' ability to listen, harmonize and yet leave space for one another. In dance this approach has existed for only about 25 years, but it has clearly begun to mature.