The sheer physical daring of last night's performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company -- the second in a week's run at the Eisenhower Theater -- alone would have made the evening one for the books. But there's always more to a Taylor event than athletic daredevilry, as blistering as that's likely to be, and to immerse oneself in the thrilling cascades of motion and emotion that characterize Taylor's choreography is to experience the art of dance in one of its richest and most durable contemporary manifestations.

All the same, it was an evening in which spine-tingling virtuosity dominated one's sense of the occasion. The program began with "Esplanade," the knock-'em-dead Taylor opus of 1975 set to Bach violin concertos that so bedazzled audiences that for a long period no Taylor program could afford to omit it. But "Esplanade" was almost invariably the finishing number, and understandably so -- it's such a punishing workout and so extravagant in technical bravado, one can scarcely imagine how the dancers could scrape themselves off the floor after it, much less go on to additional dancing. Last night, however, after starting with "Esplanade," the troupe not only persevered brilliantly through a revival of the 1964 "Duet" and last year's bristling, wacko "House of Cards," but managed to top all this with the Washington premiere of "Mercuric Tidings," a three-movement work to early Schubert symphonies that Taylor himself has described as the hardest thing his dancers have ever been asked to do.

Obviously, a program of this order requires extraordinary strength, agility and stamina, and the Taylor company possesses these attributes in spades. The current troupe of 16, dancing last night with perceptibly greater fervor than during Tuesday's opener, has an almost uncannily uniform look in terms of body type and musculature. Elie Chaib -- the Geronimo of modern dance -- has shed a few pounds, and so has the tiny, incredibly spunky Lila York, with the result that the whole company now shares that chunky, solid, sinewy and yet amazingly pliant physique that Taylor himself sported in his dancing days, and that so befits the fusion of energy, mass and fluidity at the heart of his choreographic idiom. The uniquely endearing Carolyn Adams, now retired, is much missed, but the recently recruited Kate Johnson -- in no sense a "replacement" for Adams, though she's taken over a number of her key roles -- is a dancer of precocious gifts in her own right. Small, compact, at once strong and lithe, she's also eloquently lyrical.

"Mercuric Tidings" is indeed a whiz-bang piece -- in speed, in lightning change of attack and pace and in complexity of configuration, it may well surpass anything Taylor's given us before. Between the two presto outer movements, there is, to be sure, an idyllic Andante, dominated by a heroic Christopher Gillis and the sensuous Cathy McCann, a supporting trio of women and Junoesque Susan McGuire, who ends the movement in a floor split and backward-arched torso that make for an unforgettably passionate image. The fast movements fly by like a toboggan ride--the succession of shapes and formations are almost too rapid for the eye to register clearly. Nevertheless, everything is lucid and ordered; this is, in fact, the most conspicuously classical, ballet-like work of Taylor one can recall, and the one that reveals his conceptual kinship with George Balanchine the most openly. The energy, the velocity and the instantaneous transformations nearly blind one to the overall structure, but the foundation is a musically inspired choreographic architecture that keeps the turbulence from splitting itself apart.

"Esplanade" proved as moving and dazzling as ever. The brief "Duet," a muted study in sculptural enfoldings, was lovingly danced by York and Gillis. The zany "House of Cards," seemed a tantalizing enigma. The evening's sensitive, expert conductor was Donald York.