You might say the Paul Taylor Dance Company was making up for lost time. The company returned to Washington for its first engagement in two years last night -- that's after appearing here annually without break since 1969. The occasion also marked its first appearance in the Kennedy Center Opera House in a decade. The program, the first of two for this visit, included the Washington premieres of "Roses" and "Last Look," as well as the evergreen "Esplanade."

Taylor came on stage with the company for the final curtain calls and received a personal ovation. As well he might have. The new pieces, both created earlier this year, are as masterly as anything he's given us in the past, and the program as a whole bore witness to Taylor's seemingly inexhaustible range, imagination and depth. The choreographic jag that began in 1975 with "Esplanade," at the point in Taylor's career when he stopped dancing, is still going full blast. The company -- surely there's none finer in all the world of dance -- is in superb fettle. And Taylor at 55 -- though he's long since established a technical base and stylistic identity that resist fundamental change -- is as capable as ever of taking us by surprise with his ideas.

The evening's assortment of works exemplified three of Taylor's multiple, contrasting modes. "Roses" is in the romantic vein of "Sunset," the poignant masterpiece of 1983; "Last Look" follows in the darkly expressionistic footsteps of "Churchyard," "Dust" and others; and "Esplanade" displays Taylor the neo-classicist at his exuberant best. Yet, although one can cite precedents in the Taylor canon for each of these, none has the look of recycling. One of the chief marks of Taylor's mastery is his ability to extend his well-known idiom into unknown, uncharted expressive territory.

"Roses," for instance, is romantic to be sure, but the romanticism here is utterly different in coloration and mood from that of "Sunset." The music is Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll," adjoined to which is a relatively obscure "Adagio for Clarinet and Strings" by the same composer. The hushed sweetness of the "Idyll" is realized by five couples, the women in William Ivey Long's floor-length black dresses, the men in olive-drab undershirts and trousers. The dancing is an essay in varieties of amatory tenderness. A series of duets, punctuating the group work, grows increasingly ecstatic, as Jennifer Tipton's lighting swells from its initial darkness to pools of glowing gold. The couples never change partners, but sometimes they dissolve into a unified ensemble -- a running, leaping circle, for example. They're linked by the shared experience of love, but the love comes out of the shadows, like long buried memory. When the "Idyll" comes to its seraphic close and the more discursively operatic "Adagio" commences, a sixth couple -- in pure white -- enters as the rest now sit on the floor in quiet pairs. The duet the couple in white (Cathy McCann and David Parsons) then so ardently performs, with its ballroom flamboyance and flourish, could be many things -- a youthful moment still further removed in time than the "Idyll," yet more burningly recalled; the quintessence of the emotion that the other couples have in common; the new-found passion of a younger couple, renewing the chain of romance in another age. At any rate, the couple in white, at the end, joins the five others, as all recline in a row, like figures in a family photo album.

The movement in "Roses" is velvety, curvaceous, swirling; the dancers ooze into their phrases in a lyrical flow that has no breaks, no joints, no angles. "Last Look" comes from another universe altogether, the macabre cellar of Taylor's emotional household, wherein terror, pain, desperation and viciousness are stored. Here the movement runs to twitching, to uncontrollable shakes and quivers, violent dives to the floor, angry kicks and punches, contorted lurchings. As Donald York's expertly apt commissioned score begins, with a mournful, mysteriously drooping motif, the blackened stage very gradually lightens to reveal a mound of bodies heaped on one another -- a community of the damned. Designer Alex Katz has the men in green work clothes, the women in loud, satiny dresses with slit skirts, and his set positions a series of dark mirrored panels like a corral surrounding the dancers.

The work is a glimpse into the kind of private hell to which the modern world, with its sundry addictions, neuroses and self-flagellations, is no stranger, and of which most of us have had some taste. It's not far distant from the tortured ambiance of Pina Bausch, except that Taylor's vision includes, with gut-ripping force, a remembrance of the humanity these beings have left behind. "Roses" and "Last Look" represent the antipodes of human experience -- it's part of Taylor's greatness that he can speak of both with equal truth.