The last time the Japanese butoh group Sankai Juku performed in the area, back in 1984, the dancers unfurled themselves from wires to daringly dangle headfirst above the stage. It was a death-defying feat, and at a later outdoor site one dancer tragically succumbed, with a fatal fall.

Sankai Juku returned last night with a new work, "Hiyomeki (Within a Gentle Vibration and Agitation)." In it, the dancers still look death in the face, and spit in its eye.

The restrained and rigorously disciplined performance at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium was a marvel of structure, conceptual purity and nuanced movement as quietly urgent as a pulse. Yet it must be said that "Hiyomeki," presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, was not what one typically expects from a dance performance. Judging from those who left before the close of the 90-minute work, it was not for everybody. The slow-moving art of butoh requires, above all, audience patience, for its gifts are bestowed only gradually, after an unhurried accumulation of images.

The title refers to the fontanels, the soft spots where an infant's skull has not yet solidified--where the skin is transparent, and vulnerability and helplessness are made poignantly clear. The tension between life and death, movement and stasis, was ever-present onstage.

Butoh was conceived as a dance of pain and reckoning, a postwar means of distinctly non-Western expression, and few art forms can match it in its ability to evoke horror and dehumanization. But "Hiyomeki" was also about the deeply human impulse to gaze in wonderment and reverence at the world.

A dust-covered circle lay in the center of the stage, bounded by a gleaming metal ring. Four dancers, their bodies powdered as white as ivory figurines, with heads shaved and wearing white skirts that draped to the floor, slowly and fearfully paced its perimeter. Then a lone figure--Ushio Amagatsu, the company director and choreographer of "Hiyomeki"--appeared, moving as smooth as milk in the pearly glow. He strode into the center.

Where the others were often crouched and unsure, Amagatsu was the defiant one. The one who quarreled with the air above him, raising an accusatory finger. Who even when shrinking in evident terror from an unseen heavenly force--and one couldn't help but think of the bomb--remained as tautly muscled as a cat, ready to fight.

The piece was composed of seven sections, alternating group scenes with Amagatsu's solos, and shifting in tone and tempo. In many instances there was actually much more movement than in some butoh performances. In one section, three dancers swirled with spiraling arms, rising and falling like individual geysers. In another, they moved forward only to melt back to the floor, felled by invisible forces. Still they rose, and took another step.

It was an especially arresting moment when the large metal ring was raised above the dancers' heads, where it hung, tilted, in the darkness--a shining symbol of everything and nothing, eternity and emptiness, a promise and a cipher.

The white veneer and baldness that typify the butoh dancer have been said to represent a masking of the dancers' humanness. But what "Hiyomeki" so luminously portrayed was the best of humanity, the will to continue and to find beauty along the way.

The engrossing music, by Takashi Kako and Yoichiro Yoshikawa, was widely varied--thickly echoing thuds, lyrical piano, uplifting synthesized strings and techno-warbling--yet each section had a mystical edge and essential simplicity that dovetailed with the rest. Genta Iwamura created the evocative lighting, from amber to chalk-white to deep shadows.

The program repeats tonight.