To be or not to be nuked. That is the question, is it not, of our time. The question that makes all other questions just a little bit idle. Slings and arrows were one thing; multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, something else altogether.

We may not be able to recite exact numbers, or the details of scientifically predictable consequences. What just about everyone does know, however, is that ringing the world in A.D. 1986 are "devices" that could not only snuff us all out in one short pop, but also turn the concept of posterity into an absurdity.

Dance, like all the arts, has always been seismographically sensitive to cultural and civic crises, recording -- in its subject matter, its atmosphere, its style and the very marrow of its movement -- the tremors of the individual psyche and the body politic. The invention, testing and deployment of The Bomb was a trauma of this kind if ever there was one. Inevitably, dances produced during the past four decades have registered the effects, in ways ranging from the direct to the subtle.

For directness, nothing can quite surpass "No More Hiroshimas: A Lone Star Shining," a ballet created by survivors of Hiroshima. It hasn't played Washington, but it's meticulously described in the current issue of Ballet News. The choreographer, Hideo Kimura, was 29 at the time of the Hiroshima strike and only a half-mile from its hypocenter. He spent 13 years being treated for grave injuries. His wife Sumiko, who was 27 in 1945, and her sister Mineko, who was 15, were professional dancers. The two became the nucleus of the Hiroshima Dancers troupe, with 18 other survivors.

In 1952, they premiered Kimura's "No More Hiroshimas" in the rebuilt city. Apparently it proved rough going for Japanese audiences of the time. A revised version, "A Lone Star Shining," staged in 1955, was favorably reviewed by the Japanese press, but then Kimura decided to put the production aside for a number of years.

In the intervening time, the Hiroshima detonation claimed many more victims through radiation sickness and its side effects, among them Mineko, who died of radiation-induced leukemia in 1970; Sumiko succumbed to cancer in 1983. That same year, Kimura revived his ballet, this time with Kimiko Furutsuki -- daughter of Kimura and Sumiko and artistic director of the Hiroshima Dancers -- as principal dancer. Last year, in the course of a world tour, the production was taken to New York, Tokyo, Moscow and East Berlin; this month, it returns to Hiroshima.

The lead role, performed by Kimiko Furutsuki, is that of the Hiroshima Maiden, a mutilated survivor, who, in the second of the ballet's three acts, relives the blast in a flashback. The finale is a plea for universal peace.

From the Hiroshima experience, a new contemporary dance esthetic evolved in Japan, embodying itself in the movement known as Butoh, whose adherents devote themselves to slow moving, highly controlled works dealing with primeval instincts and often grotesque imagery. The dancers typically perform in the near-nude, covered from head to toe in a doughy white makeup that has the appearance of ash.

There are Butoh or Butoh-related companies in other countries today; a few reside in the United States and a number in France. Those who saw the Sankai Juku troupe, on its first American tour last year, at the Warner Theatre -- or in their spectacular dangling descent from the roof of the National Theatre -- have had firsthand contact with Butoh and its implications. Eiko and Koma, a fascinating Japanese dance duo based in New York, have fused Butoh with elements drawn from German expressionism and American postmodernism. In one of their pieces, "Fission," they stumble awkwardly and doggedly about, clothed in white tatters, their bodies completely caked in thick bleached flour -- animated cinders from the Hiroshima firestorm. (The couple will appear at the Dance Place this fall in a Washington debut.)

Among stage works of the western world containing explicit reference to the bomb was the Robert Wilson-Philip Glass opera, "Einstein on the Beach," with choreography by Lucinda Childs. After its world premiere in Avignon and a European tour, the work was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, and was notably revived last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This multimedia phantasmagoria framed the atomic bomb (an enormous image of the mushroom cloud was projected on a screen in the closing scenes) within the paradox of Einstein's discoveries -- the side-by-side potential for unprecedented human advancement and cataclysmic destruction. The dancing itself didn't allude specifically to the bomb, but in the final solo, the seemingly out-of-control figure of a wildly flailing dancer served as a kinetic emblem of the nuclear age.

Some choreographers have tried to deflect or defuse the terror of the bomb by means of wit. Among the more successful of such attempts were the Meredith Monk-Ping Chong collaboration, "The Games," a seriocomic fantasy about a postnuclear civilization; several passages in the recent "Docudance" cycle by Washingtonian Liz Lerman; and the zany, futuristic "movement theater" piece called "Autobahn," produced by the Adaptors last spring at Baltimore's Theatre Project. There are those who will say the subject is not one that can or should be joked about. Others may feel that seeing the ludicrousness of instant annihilation is the best line of defense.

There are any number of other dance works fashioned within the past two-score years that confront the nuclear menace more or less head-on, like Kathy Posin's "Children of the Atomic Age." The shadow of the bomb, however, also seems to fall darkly upon a whole body of abstract dances that have, outwardly at least, nothing to do with the topic or with each other, works as diverse as Alwin Nikolais' "Tower," destroying its title structure in a brilliant explosion; Paul Taylor's bizarrely humorous "Three Epitaphs," peopled by endearing mutants; Anna Sokolow's obsessively stark, shivering "Night"; George Balanchine's grimly ferocious "Kammermusik No. 2," with its troglodytic male ensemble; Twyla Tharp's "Bad Smells," enveloped in random violence; and Merce Cunningham's "Winterbranch," marked by endless collapsings, blinding lights, deafening sounds.

The point is that the bomb, whether openly or implicitly, has become the all-pervading metaphor of the era.

Even in dance works that seem on the surface to be antipodally removed in tone and content from the bomb, one often has an intuition that what's really going on is a form of denial or escape -- that work of this character would have been inconceivable before Hiroshima. I have in mind, for instance, that current branch of postmodernism that emphasizes athletic speed and exuberance, chic, youthful looks, aerobic stamina, monotonously pumping rhythms and boundless bursts of energy -- the typical choreography of Molissa Fenley, Charles Moulton, Pooh Kaye and others, in which every performer looks determined to remain permanently 20, and time and destiny are obliterated in a delirium of eternal libido.

Let's face it -- choreography since midcentury has been created by people living with the awareness, however subliminal, that Homo sapiens is an endangered species. If the hands, bodies and feet that shape and execute the dance don't always visibly quake, that doesn't necessarily mean that fear and trembling aren't the underlying message.