Free Association, the dance troupe which presented the first of three weekend performances at the Washington Project for the Arts last night, is going on its seventh year, and by Washington standards that makes them practically old-timers. The experience shows, in the confidence, ease and geniality of their work.

Last night's excursion, involving founder-director Margaret Ramsay, her two veteran colleagues Barbara Mueller and Jack Guidone, and relative newcomer Michael Kasper, once again demonstrated both the pleasures and the shortcomings of the improvisatory mode the troupe has made its specialty.

There's an underlying delight in watching Free Association that's akin to the release of an unplanned holiday -- no schedles, no obligations, just larking around as impulse dictates. Guided by their individual and collective sense of theater and kinetics, the performers proceed by chain reaction. They rebound off each other, taking cues from their awareness of space, energy, or dramatic locus, and sometimes from the accompanying improvised music.

Various moments last night found Mueller rolling on the floor like a restless sleeper; Ramsey circling in a jazzy strut; Guidone conducting an imaginary phone conversation; and Kasper spinning out a series of off-balance suspensions and turns. Each such image became the fulcrum of new group departures.

A certain amount of chaotic floundering is to be expected and can even be part of the fun. It's pointless, moreover, to look for overall focus and shape from a form whose soul is unpredictability. All the same, the idiom has limitations. The attempts at verbal horseplay tend to sound stilted. Too often the action dawdles over gags that quickly wear thin. The most serious deficiency concerns the dance element specifically -- the range of movement ideas seems awfully narrow. None of this invalidates the troupe's spontaneity and rapport, but it does make a little Free Association go a long way.