Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet is not the resident company of Cedar Lake, Michigan, Illinois, or Indiana, but a 10-year-old New York City troupe that is attempting to give new shape to the relationship of ballet and modern dance in the U.S. Making its Bay Area debut Saturday night in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall for Cal Performances, it veered from the irritating to the moving to the wacky -- and tackled some of contemporary dance's current dilemmas with offbeat daring.

This is a troupe of 16 men and women from around the world who move with whiplike clarity and sinewy zeal and don't leave dancer engagement in the wings. They take the stage with the fierce intelligence and individuality of modern dancers and the classical clarity of ballet dancers, while rejecting the aimlessness and homogenizing impulse of some modern dance that wrings today's ballet of color and passion.

This gives them a quality of artistic presence that was vividly apparent, even in the night's weakest work, "Indigo Rose," by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian. Here Kylian set up a series of whiplashing encounters between pairs, and pairs of pairs, to alternating tracks of avant-garde (Robert Ashley and John Cage) and Baroque (Couperin and Bach) music. The action frequently took place in and around the outline of a giant right triangle created by a diagonal line of rope from the flies and a white stage light along the floor.

While Kylian's ideas about music, color and choreographic form never read clearly, the company members nevertheless attacked the movement as though the most profound transmissions were taking place. This included exquisitely crafted boxing steps of bobbing, weaving, leaning and undulating, and women posed in rigid second position in front of their male partners like insect goddesses.

Crystal Pite's local premiere of "Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue" was the whole package -- a beautiful and coherent vehicle for Cedar Lake dancers, both as instruments of Pite's vision and as artists. Devised as portraits of 10 different relationships that overlap and pull from each other, each vignette was defined by struggle and assistance. As the movement spiraled, pulled, tussled and pushed through space, the dancers remained lushly human and met the organically flowing vocabulary without pretense.

Norwegian dancemaker Jo Stromgren's local premiere of "Necessity Again" was the night's wryly surreal romp in philosophical terrain. A voice-over by French philosopher Jacques Derrida discussed presence, necessity and death, as a troupe of bee-hived, suited youth dragged and strung up lines from which blank paper hung.

Meanwhile, French crooner Charles Aznavour sang about love, loss, the beach, and muscadet.

It might have been titled "Against Necessity," because with no intellectual pretensions but gobs of off-kilter wit, it refused to be a dance we had to recognize, while every element in it was recognizable. Blank paper -- metaphor for empty words, the unknowable, the effluvium of our efforts to understand —— was the main character, the dancers life's pawns. Sex and instinct, including the hilarious vibrations that seized Matthew Rich's pelvis like a force from outer space, snaked through everything.

Through everything, too, Jim French's lighting met the dances as a partner, especially in what I thought of as the beach scene, where dancers down to their underwear combed the scattered paper for messages while cast in a gorgeous, Picasso-rose light.

Launched in 2003 with funds from philanthropist Nancy Laurie, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's niece, Cedar Lake has been in administrative turmoil lately. Artistically, however, this seems to be a company that dares to have something to say and even invites a woman to be among those who say it. Long may it last.

cedar lake contemporary Ballet
Presents works by Jiri Kylian, Crystal Pite and Jo Stromgren
When: 3 p.m. Feb. 23
Where: UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall
Tickets: $30-$68, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org