It's always gratifying to welcome a promising newcomer to the Washington dance scene--quality is one thing you can never have too much of. Lesa McLaughlin and Dancers made their downtown debut last night at the Washington Project for the Arts in a program of solos, duets and ensemble pieces. All were by McLaughlin, and each offered evidence of accomplishment and potential.

The choreography exhibited an easy command of current idioms and a nice sense of formal proportion--no idea was stretched beyond its limits (a syndrome besetting the work of many a tyro). The movement style tended toward Cunningham-influenced post-modernism; sneakers and jazz shoes were the prevailing footgear, and prominent as well was a Cunninghamesque fusion of balletic and contemporary techniques.

McLaughlin is a graduate of the dance program at George Mason University. Her works have been performed there, as well as at such area focal points as The Dance Place and the Glen Echo Festival. The dancers involved in last night's program, nine in all including McLaughlin, made a smart ensemble, demonstrating a technical strength and clarity still not common enough hereabouts. Three were outstanding: McLaughlin herself, trim, perky and precise; long-limbed Jennifer Selby, who has the beginnings of a magnetic stage presence; and that rarest of rarities, a sturdy, proficient and interesting male dancer, Dave Esquerra.

The program had the ups-and-downs one would expect from a relative neophyte in choreography, along with a healthy share of winning passages. "Economic Indicator" was an amusing variant of the by-now cliche' bag-lady dance--this one sported two bag-toters on a park bench, one luxuriously chic, supercilious, bored and sexy, the other a spaced-out, worn-down derelict.

"Urban Removal" began with a self-propelled cardboard box against a city skyline; a harassed-looking dancer emerged from the box, to play on and within the prop and finally to scrunch back inside it, as an ensemble of six newspaper-wielding urban automatons took over the foreground of the action. The subject was presumably metropolitan alienation, but it wasn't all that clear.

In "Connected," a pair of dancers explored the themes of cooperation and antagonism, support and opposition, to the groaning aria of Amy Ziff's cello. A brand new solo featuring McLaughlin, a sharply linear study in switch-blade leg gestures called "Nike," was the single best-controlled, least-redundant piece of the evening. The finale, "Carnival," looked like a milder version of Paul Taylor's "Big Bertha"--a surrealist vision of a county fair, complete with balloons, imitations of mechanical dolls and fun-house type distortions.

As a whole, the program displayed both an attractive conceptual diversity and a vacillating stylistic orientation, as yet without a center. The evening, however, left one looking forward to a sequel, and this alone put the event well ahead of the game.