Remember Brando -- in the cab ride with Rod Steiger in "On the Waterfront" -- muttering that wistfully immortal line, "I cudda binna cuhtenduh, Chahlie!"?

It was not just Marlon packing all the tragic force of failed aspiration into his wincing eyes and plaintive nasality. It was a classic restatement -- in reversed field, so to speak -- of the American dream. A contender is what all of us dream of becoming; we want not only to be contenders, but to be thought of and celebrated as being among the elect, the ones with a real shot at the title. What else can be the point of "free enterprise"?

The scene popped inevitably to mind at George Mason University's Harris Theatre last night, where the New York-based Susan Marshall & Company made its area debut in a performance of Marshall's full-length "Contenders," which had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival last November.

Going for it, making it, pushing beyond all reasonable limits of strength, speed, endurance and courage -- such is the underlying theme of "Contenders." Marshall herself has said as much, describing it as "a commentary on American life with its headlong drive for individual distinction and achievement."

It's a coup for GMU -- not the first, either -- to have finally brought Marshall to town, because she's one of the "hottest" choreographers to have surfaced over the past decade (her troupe began in 1983). A plethora of prestigious awards, commissions and festival appearances testifies to the esteem in which she's widely held. And as her troupe of four men and four women (including herself) made clear in last night's uninterrupted 50 minutes of performance, the Marshall dancers belong right up there with today's finest. They make an intriguing assortment of contrasting physical and temperamental traits, all of them cannily exploited in Marshall's choreography, and in fluidity, concentration and unity of purpose they are first-rate.

Superficially, "Contenders" is a well-knit, engrossing, attractive work that flatters its dancers. Though it runs without break, segments are marked off by lineups of the dancers along the sides or rear of the stage, propelled into action by the sound of a starter's pistol; blackouts also divide some scenes for dramatic effect. The movement is sinewy and labyrinthine; seldom does it attempt to suggest specific sports. Parallels are drawn between athletic contests and erotic scrimmage, a linkage far from new to the postmodern arena. Cumulatively, the piece presses toward the emergence of a leitmotif, encapsulated in a recurring image of sit-ups that surge foward, rebound back, and plunge once again ahead, icons of unquenchable striving. The message is transmitted most poignantly toward the end, with the considerable help of Pauline Oliveros's hauntingly droning music, piling static sheets of sound on top of one another like slabs of rock ascending to a mountain peak.

Despite the skill of its construction and dramatic layout, and despite the formidable persuasiveness of the dancers, there's something thin about "Contenders." Too much of it consists of recyclings of what came before, without the uplift of a new spin or slant. Though the work celebrates "individual distinction," it seems also to illustrate that competition imposes a monotony of its own -- for all their separate quirks, the dancers begin to look like clones of one another. Moreover, the piece never seriously probes the corrosive underside of the subject, its destructive and dehumanizing aspects.

Still, the strengths of both the work and the dancers are more than enough to make one put the Marshall troupe high on the list of imperative return engagements.