Cats and dogs do it, but not many people can stretch out with the total commitment of David Appel. His short, flat body seems to elongate and become double-jointed as it meets the floor. Movement seeps away to leave the muscles not limp, but so perfectly relaxed that energy is manifest only to maintain the anatomic form. Even when Appel's eyes remain open, their wary sparrow look is cleared away.

Suspending the tension of action, one of the movement themes woven into Appel's new "Taking Heart, Coming to Mind" at the Dance Place this weekend, was a brief, pungent reminder of his first appearance in Washington. That program, 2 1/2 years ago, was a study of falling asleep. Appel did it in varied ways -- sensually, simply, suddenly or in stages -- but always giving himself totally to that end. If not the sleep of innocence, his was at least slumber without a qualm of conscience.

In the new work, which Appel danced with Esther Geiger and Susan Kelly, he used a number of themes from his past choreography -- artful dodging, limb penduling, leaning into a walked curve. There also was talk, technical monologues about how to position parts of the body. Each set of instructions included at least one image, such as ". . . then turn sharply to look over your left shoulder -- at ships."

The problem was that little of the dancing itself evoked a sense of billowing sails or prows cutting the spray. Since his remarkable debut here, Appel's performances have become progressively abstruse and unstructured. Even the free and easy modern Western way in which Appel delivers exercises of ancient Far Eastern origin now shows signs of constraint across the chest and shoulders.

Kelly, who dances with several Washington groups, looked more gaunt and less energetic than usual, but she had a new and sad beauty of expression. Geiger was undistinguished in her good-natured delivery. At the end of the 35-minute pas de trois the audience lingered, uncertain whether the program had come to an end.