Dancers use their bodies as instruments, and they need constant training and upkeep, research and inquiry. Over the last two years, dancer/choreographer Kun-Yang Lin put his company of nine through a varied, rigorous training program. Thursday night at the Painted Bride, it premiered the fruit of that program, called

Mandala

- the intricate, ephemeral, circular sand paintings of Buddhist and Hindu tradition.

As observer and chronicler of the Mandala Project over many months, I had watched KYL/Dancers in rehearsals as well as at workshops with a martial-arts expert, a puppet master, the Dalai Lama's former ritual dance master, and a teacher from Taiwan's acclaimed Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Yet I was still startled to see how Lin wove those investigations into his choreography in final form. Heidi Barr's exquisite crimson costumes, Stephen Petrelli's striking lighting, and Jonathan Goldman's spiritually driven music, along with a gorgeous visual design for the first of the five sections, elevated Mandala to a masterwork of art, spirituality, and stagecraft.

Puppet master HuaHua Zhang had put the dancers through practice in working with objects, investigating how to imbue them with humanity, humor, pathos. Using large swaths of crinkled paper, she worked with Lin, Petrelli, and the dancers to create a wondrous, many-legged, mammoth-like creature by having the dancers manipulate the material around and above themselves. At the end of the beast's laborious diagonal entrance, the dancers broke out individually to whirl within the paper, which suddenly seemed lustrous and fluid as silk.

In her solo, Jennifer Rose displayed remarkable balance strengthened by her martial-arts training (as did all the dancers) and performed a dazzling back bend with one perpendicular leg anchored to the floor and the other pointing upward. Lin commands the stage with a mere jut of his chin; in his solo, he was so concentrated in his diaphanous butterfly-sleeved costume, his mystique fairly glowed.

Suffused with solemnity, the final section, "Faith," had the company walking flex-toed, steeped in ritual dance, forming and dissolving the mandala in multiple variants.

The program opened with a peek at Olive Prince and Scott McPheeters in a jaunty dance to Igor Stravinsky's Ragtime. A major departure from Lin's spiritual works, it will premiere at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in April. Lin's signature work, The Land of Lost Content, followed. This ode to the Tibetan people is the dance that hooked me on his work for good.

Additional performance:

8 p.m. Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $25. Information: 215- 925-9914, www.paintedbride.org.