The Washington appearance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company this week marks the return of a giant, in more than one sense.

Taylor, at 6 feet 1, is literally a giant as dancers go, not only in height, but in his broad athletic frame and muscular bulk -- he played right tackle as a teen-ager and won a swimming scholarship at Syracuse (which he'd entered as an art student). Though he now occupies himself solely with choreography, no longer dances and will be unable even to attend the coming performances, the imprint of his physique and way of moving is plainly mirrored in his company's movement style.

Taylor -- whose many honors include a $260,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1985 -- is gigantic in another, more metaphoric but scarcely less significant sense. Among the dance generations following Martha Graham -- who was by far the most formidable influence on Taylor's own development as a dancer and maker of dances, if largely by way of revolt -- no modern choreographer has been more prolific, more imaginative, more far ranging in theme or emotional tenor.

For a variety of reasons having more to do with the business of dance than its art, Washington audiences have seen less and less of Taylor in recent years, despite the unusually fecund period he and his company have been enjoying. From the late '60s to the early '80s, they were regular annual visitors here under the banner of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Indeed, when the troupe was threatened with extinction due to fiscal problems in 1976, it was the society's then-director Patrick Hayes who came to the rescue with a crucial benefit engagement that put the company back in the black. But there followed a two-year gap in Washington performances; a week's visit in 1985; and now at last, after a further three-year hiatus, the company's return.

The engagement promises to be a pinnacle of a "Dance America" series (cosponsored by WPAS and the Kennedy Center) that is celebrating the masters of modern dance this season. At the Eisenhower Theater, the troupe will present two programs in seven performances starting Tuesday night. Three Washington premieres will be featured -- "Brandenburgs" (1988) and "A Musical Offering" (1986), both to music by Bach, and "Counterswarm" (1988) to a score by Gyorgi Ligeti. In addition, the programs will include three Taylor masterworks of recent and earlier vintage -- "Sunset," "Mercuric Tidings" and "Esplanade."

Taylor, who is 58, won't be on hand because he expects to be convalescing from surgery for ulcers -- a malady that has afflicted him intermittently for three decades. It was part of the reason, along with a bout of hepatitis, that he gave up dancing in 1975, after a career as an unrivaled star in his own troupe, a leading dancer in Graham's company for six years and a performer with the companies of Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow, among others.

Now he has high hopes of ridding himself permanently from the pain and strict regimen the ulcers have entailed.

"In the beginning, way back, they told me it was inoperable," he said last week by phone from his New York apartment. "I'd like to operate on that doctor. Right now they're starving me -- I'm on a liquid diet -- but then they say it should take about 10 days to recuperate from the operation, and they've sworn me to two weeks of honest-to-goodness rest. After that, they tell me, I should be pain-free.

"To tell you the truth, I'm wondering if I'm going to miss the ulcer. It may be like an old friend. On the other hand, after all these years of ulcer diets, so bland, so boring, the idea of eating a hot tamale is, wow, far out."

Though hostage to the ulcer's temperament, he was hoping to attend the premiere of his newest work, the hour-long "Speaking in Tongues," last Thursday at Philadelphia's Annenberg Center.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing this piece. The music is different from anything I've ever used before. I get tapes from composers all the time, about one a week. I never like them. This one, from a young Canadian composer, Matthew Patton, I liked. In fact, when I got all done using up the music, I wanted more, so I asked him to add some, which brought the length up close to an hour. It's a collage score. It uses instruments, synthesizer, sound effects and voices, evoking a kind of revivalism, a kind of holy roller type. There's also a man telling a story about finding Christ before he drops dead, but you really can't quite make out the words unless you listen very hard. The set that Santo Loquasto did looks sort of like a meeting hall or church; all over the walls there's lettering you can't quite read. It all ties in somehow, this using of words in a musical way, instead of for meaning. The score is beautifully structured, like little tiles or something. I was struck with how architectural it seemed.

"My piece turns out, I guess, to be about religion, or something to do with spirit. I didn't know this until afterward. The music just clicked with me, and ideas began to come, but as usual, they were vague notions, too wispy, and I didn't know exactly what I was going to do until two weeks into rehearsal.

"It's the first time in years I really enjoyed doing a work. That's not completely true, of course. There are times, days, when there's a great deal of satisfaction. But for the most part, with most of my works, I feel like I'm cranking them out. It's a chore. I do it because that's what I do. When I'm finished, I look at it and think, 'Yeah, that's okay.' Then it's on to the next one." Be that as it may, whenever you ask about a specific work, Taylor waxes enthusiastic. For "A Musical Offering," set to Bach's monumental contrapuntal classic of the same title, "I gave the piece a subtitle, 'a requiem for gentle primitives.' The music sounds like a requiem to me. I think he wrote it in his old age, and to me it sounds like he's saying, 'So long, everybody.' It's not intended as a requiem for any individual -- Kate Johnson's {one of Taylor's dancers} part is like a prototype; if anything she represents a whole culture ... But I sure would like it danced at my funeral ..."

"Counterswarm", on the other hand, is "a bug dance. Working on it, I brought a lot of pictures of bugs for the dancers to look at, though I didn't mean for them to be bugs, and they're not dressed like bugs. They just move like bugs, like two different species in conflict. The music drones a lot, the notes never seem to end, there's no beat anywhere. And the movement is very exotic, very strange looking. The company has really caught the flavor wonderfully well."

If you look at your Kennedy Center program, you'll find the costumes for "Brandenburgs" credited to "George Tacet." This is one of Taylor's notoriously sly witticisms, often reflected in the special brand of humor he cultivates choreographically. For an explanation, one has only to refer to Taylor's remarkable memoir of his life and career, "Private Domain," published last year by Knopf. Therein, early on, one learns that Tacet (which, as Taylor later explains, is Latin for "he is silent") is an imaginary companion invented during Taylor's childhood years in Washington, while he was living at the Brighton Hotel on California Street, where his mother ran the dining room. "Thin and elderly George H. Tacet, Ph.D." was a "nice old gentleman," and "his existence always served practical purposes, such as when I was accused of misconduct, for then I could shift the blame to him by saying 'Old Tacet did it.' Naturally, no one ever believed me, this being a last-ditch effort to avoid the hairbrush."

A little later, Taylor, reflecting on the adage "silence is golden," writes that "... even then I was learning the basic premise of a dancer's profession -- that speaking with movement is best, and that most sorts of verbal communication were risky ..."

The passage is also a reminder of that landmark in contemporary dance, the duet Taylor presented in 1957 in which he and a partner remained motionless through four minutes of silence, occasioning the celebrated review by musician-dance theorist Louis Horst consisting of four inches of blank space. However, for all of Taylor's regard for stillness and silence, his mistrust of discourse is contravened resoundingly by his piquant linguistic dexterity in "Private Domain" (which is, incidentally, also the title of an extraordinary Taylor dance opus about erotic experience, which premiered in 1969).

The book is enlivened by not only Taylor's personal revelations, recollections of his Washington youth (including classes in Graham technique from Ethel Butler) and remembrance of early career hardships (from roach-infested cold-water flats to eating dog food filched from supermarkets), but also his priceless characterizations of the many artists in dance and other fields with whom he worked, including Graham, Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Lincoln Kirstein, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Two quick examples. In 1959, while still a member of the Graham company, Taylor was asked by George Balanchine to perform as a guest with the New York City Ballet in his half of a watershed Balanchine-Graham two-part work called "Episodes," to music by Anton Webern. In the book, Taylor relates the following encounter:

"At the end of the last rehearsal, since the solo seems to be about something, yet its subject a mystery to me, I ask Mr. B if there is any particular way that it's to be performed. 'Umm,' he answers, nose fidgeting and sniffing out a proper image. 'Is like fly in glass of milk, yes?'."

And of Pina Bausch, the current high priestess of German neoexpressionist dance, who was once among Taylor's fellow students at Juilliard, he writes:

"Pina, at least a head taller and one of the thinnest human beings I've ever seen, seems to care little about looking pretty, is able to streak across the floor sharply, though a bit unevenly, like calipers across paper. She's also able to move slower than a clogged-up bicycle pump ... Personally, I love watching her and suddenly have an idea for the duet -- am eager to turn her into a black widow spider or praying mantis."

Most memorable of all are Taylor's insights into dancing and making dances, expressed with the same mingling of wit, mordancy and penetration that typifies his choreography. Herewith a few instances:

On tour with the Graham troupe in Tokyo, Taylor is singled out during a press conference. "... I'm picked to define modern dance, something that none of the reporters seem to have heard of. The question is a toughie. My answer -- one that gets me excused from future conferences -- is the best I can come up with. 'It's like this,' I explain. 'You know ballet? Well, modern's just the same, but uglier.' "

And this, in mischievous retort to the oft-quoted Graham dictum that movement never lies:

"I grew up watching for the telling movement, both animals' and humans', as I suppose, but have never known for sure, all children do. To see a truth, you also have to spot a lie. I eventually appreciated the artistry of a movement lie -- the guilty tail wagging, the overly steady gaze, the phony humility of drooping shoulders and caved-in chest, the decorative-looking little shuffles of pretended pain, the heavy, monumental dances of mock happiness. It is said that the body doesn't lie, but this is wishful thinking. All earthly creatures do it, only some more artfully than others."

And finally this, on the relationship between intellectual comprehension and esthetic perception:

"Mine is the most cryptic dance on the program. Even so, many persons in the large opening-night audience clap and stamp. I can't tell if they understand the dance, but wouldn't be surprised if they didn't. I don't; why should they? At any rate, understanding never seems to hinder their appreciation."