One left the Columbia Ice Rink feeling exhilarated Friday night, and not only because of the goose-bump-raising temperatures inside. What was especially cheering was the clean execution and rippling artistry of the Next Ice Age performers, a skating ensemble that adds a lyrical dance quality to the knife-point precision of metal on ice.

These skaters have little in common with the solo dynamos of the Winter Olympics. The sport of ice skating is now about how much spinning in the air one can do and how high he can jump before hammering down on his blade. Work on the ice has become secondary. Contrast this with the Next Ice Age, whose members have such a light, unstrained touch on the ice that they seem to float, thrillingly simulating flight and freedom. When they do burst into the air, the sight is stunning, but the effect is not just to draw applause but to add texture and surprise to the ribbony group formations.

Not only are the ensemble's nine skaters technically and artistically accomplished, taking care to shape their arms and mirror the music, but founder-director Nathan Birch and co-founder Tim Murphy use them in endlessly creative ways. Clearly they are striving to fill the void left when former Olympian John Curry folded his magnificent skating company in the mid-'80s (Birch and Murphy were members). The field, after all, is wide open for interpretations other than the commercial enterprises like Disney on Ice and the Ice Capades, which have less to do with skating than with costuming. Despite all the logical similarities between skating and dancing, and the myriad possibilities for linking both fields through choreography and music, few enterprises such as the 12-year-old Next Ice Age exist.

And surprisingly, while the Baltimore-based company performed at the Kennedy Center three years ago (with Dorothy Hamill as a guest artist), local performances are still rare, due to the expense of creating an ice surface, and, perhaps, presenters' unfamiliarity with just how beautiful such ensemble skating can be.

Friday's sold-out program, part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, would win over any skeptics. It featured two works: Murphy's "Turn," set to Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 in E-flat, and Birch's "The Book of Proverbs," accompanied by Michael Torke's choral composition of the same name. The rink was blocked off with draperies to create a space configured like a proscenium stage, with the skaters gliding on and off through wings at each side. The rough acoustics did the recorded music no favors. Yet there was undeniable magic on the ice, which had a moonlit glow throughout the evening.

In "Turn," the building drama in the music was echoed in circular formations of varying speed and size, tightening and widening like the pupil of an eye. Slashing arms reflected the slicing blades of the skates. In one section, the lithe but steely Dawn Latona squared off playfully with four men--Jeff Merica, Andrew Naylor, Mark Schmitke and Gig Siruno--while Chris Conte, a powerful skater with a taffylike elasticity, led the group in the final movement. Maria Buonaccorsi Rodgers created the properly soft costumes, in cool ice blue and sunset orange.

The skaters came out touched in gold--wearing Rodgers's short, stylized Roman togas and winged headbands--for "The Book of Proverbs." Torke's tuneful arrangements and velvety chorus provided a lush background against which the skaters unspooled across the ice in serene lines. A recurring image, and the most memorable, was that of Latona borne atop another skater, holding a banner that billowed like a sail as they slipped across the ice.

The final, uplifting moments, when the skaters took flashlights out of a ceremonial urn, bringing them together into a glowing bouquet, then showering the audience with light, sounded a hopeful note. Here's hoping for more such performances in the future.