They're back. On Thursday night, Pilobolus - those dancers who routinely transform their bodies into horses, cars and aquatic plants and whose extraordinary popularity has been annoying dance purists for nearly 40 years - started a three-day run at the Annenberg Center.

As usual, the theater was filled with both dance aficionados and people who insist they don't like dance. Based on the audible gasps of delight and disbelief emanating from the audience, both sorts were impressed by the seven performers and their five short pieces, including the very first Pilobolus composition, created in 1971, and one finished earlier this year.

At its best, Pilobolus offers more than just a bag of tricks: exquisitely controlled movements that would challenge a Pilates master or an Olympic gymnast, and optical illusions that make you swear you've just seen someone swimming in mid-air. Still, the truth is that Pilobolus' tricks are so clever, and so beautifully executed, that even when they fail to coalesce into a coherent composition, they're still pretty wonderful to watch.

In the earliest piece called, simply,

Pilobolus

(from 1971), the humorous bits don't really fit in with the rest. But by the time you get to

Rushes

, the strongest - and one of the newest - items on the bill, the dancers (who collaborate with each other and, in this case, also with Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak) combine high-energy movement with moments of quiet melancholy, gorgeous abstraction and sheer lunacy, to create a theatrically powerful compositions.

Rushes

features Edwin Olvera as an insectlike man carrying a mysterious suitcase, a group of chairs that magically form a Rockettes-style "kick line," a marvelous short animated film by Peter Sluszka, and an astonishing sequence in which Jenny Mendez appears to ice skate, barefoot, across the stage.

Other highlights include

Pseudopodia

, another early work based on the erratic movement of a tumbleweed. In this virtuosic solo, Jun Kuribayashi is buffeted by unseen winds, constantly changing directions and speeds. And then there is the opening sequence of

Megawatt

, in which six dancers enter on their backs, propelled by the convulsive movements of their shoulders, heads, and heels. Later these performers writhe, tumble and throw themselves into the air, landing with loud smacks on the black mat covering the stage.

If there were a few too many slow-motion backward walkovers during the evening, the program's acrobatic aspects generally were balanced by the lyrical aspects of

Lanterna Magica

, inspired by children's efforts to catch fireflies.

In addition to Mendez, Olvera, and Kuribayashi, the uniformly excellent company members were: Andrew Herro, Jeffrey Huang, Manelich Minnifee and Annika Sheaff.