From the 1940s through the '50s, American choreographers produced a raft of enduring masterpieces: There was Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments," Jerome Robbins's "Fancy Free," Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring," to name just a few. To their number, add Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavane" and Doris Humphrey's "Invention," both given illuminating performances by the Limon Dance Company Thursday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

The Mexican-born Limon was not a maverick artist like Balanchine and Graham, but he was an essential player in the vast expansion of dance -- particularly modern dance -- that occurred in this country in the early decades of the 20th century. Limon performed with Humphrey's pioneering company, then enlisted her aid in forming his own troupe. Together, they built an institution characterized by superbly trained, highly expressive dancers and deeply felt works. Limon died in 1972, but, defying precedent, his group has lived on, largely through the efforts of former dancer Carla Maxwell, who has been the group's artistic director since 1978.

"The Moor's Pavane" was at one time one of the most frequently performed modern dances in the country, owing to its small cast, simplicity of design and relatively uncomplicated but intensely dramatic choreography. Its reputation extended beyond the modern dance world; Rudolf Nureyev, along with other ballet dancers, seized on its clarity and popular appeal. Its inspiration is Shakespeare's "Othello," although rather than dance out the story, Limon ingeniously distills the tragedy into its sharpest emotions: jealousy, suspicion, rage and crushing remorse. Using music by Henry Purcell, Limon employs the patterns of the courtly pavane dance to structure the behavior of the four performers (the Moor, his Wife, his Friend, and his Friend's Wife). As the questions about his wife's faithfulness gain force in the Moor's mind, planted by his scheming friend, the politeness and formality of the pavane shatters, with a grievous outcome.

Thursday night, Francisco Ruvalcaba was the Moor; Kimiye Corwin was his Wife, Raphael Boumaila, his Friend, and Roxane D'Orleans Juste, his Friend's Wife; all possessed the tricky combination of resiliency and hard-edged intensity that gave the work its dramatic tension. What was especially notable here was the absence of melodrama or overly physical force. The dilemma unfolded clearly through movement and gestures, which though stylized looked natural and unstudied.

Humphrey's "Invention," which opened the program, is a straightforward, plotless dance, in the form of a solo, two duets and a trio. Quality of movement was of key interest here. Humphrey's vocabulary bears a resemblance to that of Martha Graham, but in a kinder, gentler fashion -- she used bold shapes, twisting and stretching the body in ways that made it seem grand and sculptural.

With Thursday's cast, there was no effort, no contortion, just a splendid sense of freedom. Robert Regala was especially elastic; his dancing had an exceptional smoothness, with one movement giving way to another as though molded out of soft clay. Kristen Foote and Corwin shared this sense of unfailing reach and recovery.

The other works on the program were not as successful as these, though the quality of the dancing remained terrifically high. There were moments of great feeling and urgency in Limon's "Psalm," a parable of suffering and righteousness from 1967. But following its shifting groups was a challenge, made more so by the dancers' dull gray costumes with only the smallest shots of color. Its mood was troubled and serious, and the piece felt heavy.

Jonathan Riedel brought an impressive abandon and plushness to "Etude," a solo created by Maxwell in the Limon style, and bearing out his fascination with strong feeling and devotional passion. Adam Hougland's "Phantasy Quintet" was likewise inspired by the Limon style, though it, like "Psalm," felt long and labored. But if the choreography was uneven, the dancers' effortlessness, their mastery of tone and manner, and their uncommon athletic skill were thrillingly consistent.

Even lesser works like Limon's "Psalm" were elevated by excellent dancing.