To wallow in contradictions as resolutely as Sally Nash does in "A Length of Childhood" is astonishing. This piece of dance theater is a ruminative epic, full of homespun touches and humanity's symbols, ruler-straight floor plans and nearly shapeless motions, mimetic telegramming and interminable costume changing. It is a story of growing up, of emancipation from the parental family; but last night's audience at Washington Project for the Arts was also warned not to try too hard to find a literal plot.

It's not really hard to follow what happens if one remembers a few basics in the program notes. Robert Haase and Nan Reddick are the handsome parents. Like images in old photos, they look younger in some scenes than their children who have grown old and are turning the pages of the family album. What is sometimes difficult is focusing on the core of the action.

The work is staged close to the audience, and in one instance the line of performers wrapped itself around the viewing area in a noose.

The passages of dance were concentrated, dry and potent, yet loose in actual movement. There was marching, curling and uncurling of the body, as well as balancing and wrestling with objects. Nash's is not a vast vocabulary of motions, but it is varied by emphatic use of the arms. There also are different dramatic allusions inherent in her imagery. In a women's dance the performers strode like sybils, bore objects like porters in a caravan, and clapped and stamped like squaws invoking the rain. Nash herself had a painful solo of tensing and unleashing the torso and limbs. In the final scene the cast was seated and rocked back and forth persistently--although only one of them was in a rocking chair.

Shape-note hymns served as the simple, haunting base for the accompanying music by Beth Bollinger, who conducted the singers and instrumentalists. "Childhood" will be performed again tonight.