The heirlooms in the Renwick Gallery ought to have provided a propitious setting for Maida Withers' "Families Are Forever," currently on view in the museum's Grand Salon. Through dance, gesture and facial expression, Withers explores the forces that act between successive generations and between an individual and kin.

Among these forces are the imprint of parental taste and childhood memories of past fashions. That the nostalgic ambience of the Grand Salon did not contribute to the theatrical effect of the choreography was due to the arrangement of the room. The salon has ample space for dancing, but there is no place where viewers can sit, stand or squat to see all of the performance against the backdrop of paintings and objets d'art. One had to forget the place and focus on the members of the Dance Construction Company.

The cast of seven performers was drawn from diverse age groups. Two boys and two men dance the first of the work's four chapters. The thematic motions that twins Eric and Marc Withers dispatched casually as they ran and frisked appeared rigid as delivered by the first man, John Bailey. Wearing boots, Bailey asserted himself but squelched spontaneity and limited his own freedom of movement.

Dale Crittenberger, the second man, slid into the action mercurially. He polished the playful behavior of the boys into a far more facile tool than Bailey did, but not without the display of some stubborn traits. Joe Clark's music for "Families" has a militaristic beat in this first quartet.

The sound for the second chapter had a gamelan quality and the dancing was light in texture, with swinging gestures, tripping steps and wide leaps. Bailey, Crittenberger and three women--Susan Jamieson, Susan Short and Maida Withers--encounter each other in preludes to courtship. Sudden stoopings, embraces and acts of staring at body parts serve as mimetic arrests to the lyrical passages.

Withers created ingenious choreography for the third chapter. Jamieson, Short and the two men move as a group through events about love and life. They are linked anatomically and kinetically. Although a surprising variety of partnering and individual dancing occurred, the group maintained a sculptured shape.

In a slow-motion frieze to organ-like sounds, Withers led the two other women and Bailey in a representation of age, the painful spasms of disease and of collapse in death. Finally, all the dancers joined to state again some of the themes that humans repeat "forever."

Subtle in certain sections and schematically blunt in others, Withers' family pageant tries for epic status with great persistence. The performance is repeated today at 3 p.m.