The appearance of the David Gordon Pick Up Co. last night at Baird Auditorium was a signal event for the arts in Washington. Gordon is one of the last of those associated with the legendary Judson Dance Theater group, the moving force behind the dance revolution of the '60s, to perform here.

The concert revealed Gordon's place in the avant-garde as its resident metachoreographer. While much of 20th-century dance has aimed toward abstract dances that are simply about movement itself, Gordon has gone one better in making dances that are ultimately about the specific dances themselves. Each of Gordon's works folds in upon itself in reference and context to comment upon and feed new material into itself. This deep layering of images revolves and accumulates to produce a staggering multiplicity of messages and overtones.

In the same way, Gordon's company of winning performers do not dance roles, either characterized or abstract; rather, they perform as themselves. Or, at least they seem to. Though they use their real names and seem to present their real relationships and biographical details, it is not clear how much might be self-revelation and how much is theater; that is, how much this multiplicity might ultimately lend itself to duplicity.

One of the more unusual things about a Gordon concert is that the dancers do as much talking as moving. The puns and Shakespearean misunderstandings stress a movement/verbal connection: for example, to move back refers to a place in space as well as to a body part as well as to a verbal construction. This wordplay is most effective in "T.V. Reel," a dance structured like a game of "Rumors." Movements as well as words are passed on and changed ever so slightly, but significantly, until a new message results. This wit places Gordon as the avant-garde answer to vaudeville. He employs every device from the Marx Brothers' "Why a duck?" fractured misunderstandings to the old "John-Marsha" routine. An anchor for this me'lange is provided by the enthralling narrative presence of Valda Setterfield. When she is joined by Gordon, with his enigmatic, mesmeric smile, it is instant and magical rapport.

With the aid of slide projections, "Close Up" vividly demonstrates the effect of context on the perception of movement messages. The simple device of changing costumes from dancers' practice clothes to elegant street clothes radically changes the "meaning" of a man's hand caressing a woman. "Double Identity" also pithily deals with the notion of what movement means: a reclining dancer is described as a woman abandoned/an abandoned woman/a fallen woman. The performers' autobiography is exploited in "Dorothy & Eileen," in which a single gesture suddenly changes the atmosphere from blase' to deeply poignant.

This auspicious first presentation of this year's 9th Street Crossing Festival will be repeated tonight at 8.