The Maryland Dance Theater, the touring repertory company in residence at the University of Maryland, founded in 1971 by Dorothy Madden and Larry Warren, made its first appearance in Lisner Auditorium last night, an occasion that turned out to be notable in numbers of ways.

The MDT always has been one of the most interesting companies in the area, but last night it seemed to come of age -- a tribute to the astuteness of director Warren, as well as the dancers themselves. Since its last local appearance, the troupe, now enlarged to 13 dancers, appears to have made the jump from erratic merit to excellence. A new level of technical refinement, stylistic awareness and expressive focus was in evidence all evening.

In its present state, the company could stand with pride beside professional groups in any city. Lisner itself was a potent enhancement -- not only did the troupe dance better than it ever has in memory, but the auditorium and everything about last night's production allowed it to be seen to far keener advantage than in the past.

To top it all off, the program was the strongest artistically one can recall from MDT; works by five notable choreographers, each of substantial impact, and each benefitting from the illuminating contrasts inherent in the grouping.

Bertram Ross' "Nocturne," which led off, is an affectionate idyll to Gershwin's "Lullaby for String Quartet," full of soft, cushiony movement and an appealing formal clarity. The dancers are mostly paired off, but the prevailing mood is camaraderie among the foursome. Sokolow's "Moods," though somewhat diffuse in structure, is a fine sampling of her powerful idiom, with its tense huddles, sudden falls, pained gropings and moments of haunting intimacy.

"Cahoots," Don Redlich's slap-happy romp in paper costumes, was winningly set forth by Alvin Mayes and Renee Oliver, as was Dan Wagoner's beguiling backwoods memoir, "Dan's Run Penny Supper," by the ensemble. The piece de resistance, though, was Lar Lubovitch's "Whirligogs," a pell-mell riot of surreal imagery that wavers teasingly on the border between the grotesque and the wittily eccentric, brilliantly set to Berio's college score, "Sinfonia."