A near-capacity audience at Lisner Auditorium last night welcomed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with a roaring ovation. The size of the audience and its response were as much indications of a growth in perceptual horizons hereabouts as they were compliments to Cunningham. It's been 14 years since the choreographer has appeared with his troupe in downtown Washington, and in the meantime, it has become clearer to everyone just how large Cunningham's creative originality and influence loom in the scheme of 20th-century artistic achievement.

Cunningham himself, however, remains inimitable, as last night's program again certified.

In one way, it's much easier to watch Cunningham's work than other kinds of theatrical dance -- you don't have to figure out the allegorical or symbolic significance of anything. In another way, Cunningham is much more demanding. There's nothing but the movement to go on, and what you make of it is entirely up to you.

Yet, for all the purity of Cunningham's abstractions, each work has its own character. The three on last night's program, for instance, could not have been more sharply differentiated in linear profile, dynamic texture, atmosphere and, yes, feeling. Cunningham hasn't removed expression from dance; on the contrary, it's everything else he's pared away, leaving the art naked with its expressive essence.

"Doubles," a "Golden Commission" of the 1984 American Dance Festival, was the most coolly austere of the three works. The dance begins, against the piping, whistling, up-sliding sounds of Takehisa Kosugi's score, with tall, willowy Catherine Kerr poised in waiting, alone on stage. She begins to move, slowly, her arms angling into mysterious signals, her torso folding forward, her leg rising in a breathtaking arc, and the movement takes on a quality of animal stealth. The quality persists as six other dancers join the action in shifting layers. Typically, at one moment, a pair of dancers in one sector of the stage will remain motionless, observing a group moving elsewhere, the stillness as eloquent as the motion. The work has the ever-surprising fascination of a Calder mobile.

The concluding "Roadrunners" (1979), for the entire company of 15 including Cunningham, is quite obviously jaunty, even comical, in tone. The dancers are all in white, and there's some understated horseplay with berets and other items of clothing -- Cunningham, in one sequence, tries to dodge a cavorting woman while sitting on the floor and donning socks and shoes, only to end up supporting her outstretched leg. A running motif becomes increasingly insistent, and all are jogging in place as the curtain falls. Yasuno Tone's sound score combines Asian pluckings with recitations -- in English and Chinese -- of ancient geographical texts.

The melancholy poignancy of "Pictures" (1984) -- one of Cunningham's most richly reverberant dances of recent years -- is reinforced by the drones and plaintive violin phrases of David Behrman's music; by the entrance of Cunningham, late in the work, as a kind of darkling sage; and by the "pictures" of the title. These are silhouetted configurations, dancers linked and frozen in small groupings in an awesome variety of baroque shapes. The final Pieta image, with a woman slung forlornly across Cunningham's arms, is unforgettably piercing.

As for the company, it is in superlative shape. Each movement is etched with luminous intensity and precision -- you have the feeling that in total darkness you'd still see these dancers, irradiated by an inner light.