"Modern dance" has become notoriously difficult to pin down as a distinct genre -- it has been stretched to include such a variety of styles that it is practically without meaning.

This point is being given ample demonstration by Washington Dance Directions '85, a two-week showcase of D.C. "modern" companies, which opened last night at Marvin Center Theatre with its first program of four choreographers.

The image of the modern dancer as pop culture leader is the sensibility exuded by the Claudia Murphey Dance Company. Murphey's carefully crafted works for these accomplished technicians have the glamorous languor of new-wave cool ("Private Matter") along with a hard-edged punk veneer ("From Here to There"). On video, it would be fodder for MTV.

As seen in Carla Perlo's "Footprints," the approach of Perlo/Bloom & Company is more within the vein of a dance equivalent to "easy listening." The company also took on "Branch" (from "Bright Orchard") by New York choreographers Deborah Riley and Diane Frank, whose work is strongly influenced by Merce Cunningham.

The issue of collaboration for the traditional modern dancer was addressed by Dianne Hunt and Dancers in Hunt's "Life Drawing," which employed as decor giant cardboard cut-outs of dancers. Ironically, the dance appeared static against the implied motion of these same gestures as rendered in Sarah Hyde's vivid paintings.

The Ava/Teri Dance Theatre, represented by a much-improved version of Robert Teri's "Bomb '85" and Michelle Ava's "Eurythmics Suite," is the most problematic for inclusion under the rubric "modern." While progressing in discipline and choreographic craft, the company still works within the Vegas idiom -- and not as commentary or for shock value -- to explore such issues as nuclear war and contemporary alienation.

The series continues with new programs tonight and Saturday. All programs will also be repeated next weekend.