If the progress of the Washington Ballet continues to accelerate as it has over the past several years -- and last night's season opening strongly hints that it will -- then people who weren't present at this Lisner Auditorium performance will be cussing themselves a decade hence for missing the glorious beginnings.

There was an air of surging excitement about the evening, a sense of big things in the making. The company may be relatively small, still spotty in technical strength, uneven in its ranks, short on outstanding principals. But it has graduated from promise to solid assurance, and on the all-important creative front it has moved onto the leading edge. To know where the future of ballet in this country is coming from, this is one place you have to look.

Last night brought the premieres of two new ballets. One was by the troupe's assistant artistic director, Choo San Goh, whose choreography has been attracting vigorous national attention. The second was by newly named resident choreographer Eric Hampton, who is also back dancing again after recovering from injury. Both works should help to speed the company's upward spiral.

Goh's entry, "Birds of Paradise," set to Alberto Ginastera's attractively exotic Harp Concerto and calling for two lead couples and an ensemble of nine, is a sizzler of a ballet. It sustains a level of emotional and sensual intensity that exceeds anything he's done in the past, and its formal intricacies are dazzling. By now, there are plenty of recognizable Goh signature traits, such as the ominously drumming toe shoes in the silence of the opening and brilliantly cascading exits and entrances. But, just as distinctly, there is a slew of beguiling beguiling elements.

It's as if something -- perhaps freshly won confidence in his most spontaneous impulses -- had unlocked hidden doors in his imagination, setting loose a flurry of novel, torsotwisting shapes and memorable formations. The bird motif is more metaphoric than literal, though there are patent lockings, flutterings and so on. Among the highlights -- after an equivocal, self-derivative opening movement -- are a pair of exquisitely erotic duets at the close of the slow movement, and the whole of the torrential finale, including the surprising stabs of terror in its closing images. The excellent leads were Lynn Cote and John Goding, Julie Miles and Simon Dow.

Hampton's "Scriabin Sonata," like the music after which it's named, runs out of invention well before the end, but before that happens it gives further compelling evidence of Hampton's choreographic flair, and in particular his feeling for poetic resonance.

Also on the program were commendable performances of James Clouser's "Con Spirito" and Salvatore Aiello's "Sola."