Over the past 15 years Twyla Tharp's career has been a variant of the American Dream. She's proceeded not from rags to riches, but from the severity and isolation of the avant-garde to a Hollywood movie, the Broadway stage, Ralph Lauren costumes and ballet superstars. She began as an apostle of stark abstraction: she's become a darling of popular culture. The question is, has she gone anywhere worth going, insofar as her artistic evolution is concerned.

To put it another way, how can a choreographer have so much gift, so much craft, so much moxie, and yet have so little to say -- or more precisely, one rather trifling thing which she says over and over again.

The Twyla Tharp Dance Foundation, as her troupe is now known, returned to Washington last night for the first of three performances at Lisner Auditorium, bringing three works not previously seen here. "Oceans's Motion," for 10 dacers and set to Chuck Berry songs, has an overlay of '50ish, Presley-style slouching and grinds. "Brahms' Paganini," Tharp's latest, starts with a tour-de-force male solo, spectacularly executed by William Whitener last night, and goes on to obvious and overworked balletic spoofery for two couples and soloist Jennifer Way -- the music is the formidable set of piano variations nicknamed in the title. In "Baker's Dozen," which uses four Willie (the Lion) Smith numbers, it's couple-dancing and chorus-line formations that come in for choreographic ribbing by 12 dancers.

Underneath all this were the by-now-familiar traits of the Tharp style -- floppy limbs, shrugs and wiggles, tricky isolations, off-balance stumblings, presto changes of pace and direction.

The surface of these Tharp pieces is still dazzling in its way -- the movement comes at you in nonstop, quirky, promiscuous gushes. No matter how much calculation has gone into it, though (and evidently it's a great deal), the effect is that of unpremeditated scribbling. There seem to be no outlines to Tharp's choreography -- it's all frills, pleats and fringes. Its uniformity, moreover, has a disastrously homogenizing effect on the dancers, who despite their wonderful prowess, are reduced to interchangeable cogs in the Tharpmobile. The dancing is also amazingly sexless, for all its intense physicality and kinship with popular form. But perhaps the most depressing feature of Tharp's work is the poverty of its expressive range, which appears to extend no further than from the smart to the flippant.