When Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre made its Washington debut a year ago at the Dance Place, a press release hailed it as "one of the most exciting dance companies in the United States." To a wary critic, this sounded like routine hype. The characterization, however, proved not an exaggeration, but possibly an understatement. It would take a brigade of buckets to put out the fires this beautiful and innovative troupe from Rochester lights all over a stage.

Bucket was back in town last night at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, more incendiary than ever. In the meanwhile, Bucket has been seen nationally on public TV's "Dance Black America" special, and the company's reputation -- mushrooming steadily since its founding in 1970 -- has risen higher still.

Founder-director-choreographer Fagan is a native of Jamaica who toured Latin America as a young dancer before settling in this country, first in the Detroit area and later in upper New York State, where he created Bucket almost literally from nothing, working originally with virtually untrained inner-city students. The miracle he has wrought has many facets, but almost all of them were visible in the first few minutes of last night's opening work, "Prelude," a thrilling showcase for all 11 dancers.

The piece's subtitle is "Discipline Is Freedom," and it's a fine thumbnail description of these lithe, dynamic performers, who combine extraordinary physical dexterity and finesse with a blazing spontaneity of spirit. Most impressive of all is the wonderful new choreographic synthesis Fagan has forged from the dance traditions of Africa, the Caribbean, modern and jazz dance. In "Prelude," "Touring Jubilee" (which tosses black social dance of the '20s into the mix) and "From Before," these sources are explicitly legible. In pieces like "Sonata in the Afternoon," to music by Brahms, and "Easter Freeway Processional," to music by Philip Glass, they are sublimated into Fagan's own highly original idiom, fusing sculptural, lyric and rhapsodic impulses into a cogent and flexible blend. Bucket's been here twice -- the sooner the third appearance, the better.